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.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Failure that was Zelda II

I enjoyed the Angry Video Game Nerd’s recent review of the NES game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (a warning to those not familiar with James – his reviews are full of extremely salty language).  However, I can’t agree with his assessment that it’s a great game despite its flaws.

The problem is not that it’s mostly a side-scroller, with the other Zelda games being from and overhead perspective.  I’m not a Zelda enthusiast so that makes no difference to me.  There’s an NES game similar to Zelda II named Faxanadu (buy my used copy here).  It involves swords, magic, jumping, monsters, and labyrinths.  It too is a side-scroller, and far superior to Zelda II.  If Zelda II was of the level of quality of Faxanadu, it wouldn’t be considered a disappointment.

No, the main problem is that the overworld view is visually horrendous, tedious, and an embarrassment.


No, those graphics were not good or even acceptable by 8-bit standards.  Here’s how an overworld should look in an 8-bit game, roughly:


That picture if from Phantasy Star, a game that puts Zelda II to utter shame.  Notice how the water near the coasts has some subtle surf effects (the water line moved in and out to simulate waves), the sand features cactuses and dunes, there are some shadows around the town.  Zelda II has none of that.  It’s like they didn’t try.  Is that a characteristic of a great game?

Zelda II’s dungeons are bland and repetitive.  There’s very little variation in appearance, with the color of the bricks being the main thing that changes from one dungeon to the next.  The environmental obstacles don’t go much beyond pits to jump over, blocks, and elevators.


It’s true that that complaint could be leveled against the first Legend of Zelda, but for whatever reason the labyrinths in the game were fun most of the time and rarely tedious.  Faxanadu is a good example of variety and creativity in 2D dungeons.

faxanadu  faxanadu-2

James’ review covers the game’s difficulty and frustration level, so I won’t go into that aspect of it.

So, this was basically just a rant about a game that I think is overrated.  Yes, it’s part of a beloved franchise, but even fans of that franchise should be honest and admit the Zelda II is a total lemon of a game.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Demo Assessment: Castlevania Harmony of Despair

Castlevania Harmony of Despair sounds like it would be right up my alley.  In an earlier post I said, “Konami and everyone else -- we will gladly pay $15+ for classic games on our modern consoles if you put some effort into optimizing them. Widescreen and high definition are the main things I want. Achievements, enhancements, different modes of play are also nice.”  CHoD has all of those things going for it.  Its price is exactly $15.  But...



The graphics are attractive.  They’re widescreen.  They’re HD.  By today’s standards though, I’m afraid they just don’t cut it.  They’re too pixel-y.  They’re too 16-bit.  I would point to Braid as an example of a sprite-based game on a modern console with excellent graphics:


Braid’s sprite’s don’t have jagged edges.  The game looks like a painting in motion.  It’s an independent game, released two years ago.  You’re telling me that a game released by Konami today can’t look nearly as good as that?

Visuals aren’t the only problem for CHoD.  The controls are stiff, and the pace of the game is slow.  This is typical of Castlevania games, but I think Konami could have retained the basics and still have made the controls feel more fluid and responsive.  I keep mentioning Bionic Commando:Rearmed, but it is the standard for games of its type (as far as I’m concerned), and it has great controls that are faithful to the original.  When you consider that just about any random platformer on the XBox 360 – Rocket Knight, for example (another Konami game) – has better controls, it’s hard to make the case for playing Castlevania.

The lack of local multiplayer is disappointing.  Hydro Thunder Hurricane, last week’s XBox Live Arcade release, has to render complex 3D environments and water effects.  That game has a 4-player split screen mode.  All that CHoD has to render is 2D sprites.  Given the zoom out / zoom in feature of the game (which is very cool), you’d think that a multi-player split screen mode would be easy.

Castlevania has a lot of good qualities and I’m pretty sure it’ll be a hit.  The effort that went into it is clearly about 2000% greater than the effort that went into the terrible emulated Contra releases for XBox Live Arcade.  I’m sure I could have a lot of fun playing it online with 5 other players.  But given the other great games to choose from, I can’t justify buying this one.

I still have high hopes for Konami’s upcoming Hard Corps: Uprising (a Contra modernization) and Rush’n Attack Ex-Patriot.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Retrospective on RTS Games

500x_rtsguildeepi_01Kotaku’s Visual Guide to RTS games makes me feel like a wise video game sage, since I played so many of the formative RTS games.  (Click here for a Seadragon version of the image to the right).

Let me first talk about Herzog Zwei, considered by some to be the first RTS game. It’s the first one I played, at least.

My friend Scott was given it as a gift.  We were expecting to to be a shooter like Thunderforce II (from the same company, Technosoft).  It clearly was a completely different type of game, leaving us confused.  We initially concluded that it was a terrible game and would joke about its funny name (seriously, did they clear that with the marketing department?  Did they have a marketing department?  Command & Conquer – now there’s a good name for an RTS game).

But we eventually revisited the game and discovered what a unique, deep game it was.  Another friend of ours, Jeremy -- who was not a video gamer, but liked strategy-based board games like Axis and Allies -- really took to it, and became better at it than either me or Scott.

I had one strategy in the game -- build a tank and drop it off right behind the enemy base.  The character you controlled could not attack the enemy base directly, but could attack enemy units.  So I would let my tank attack the base, and I would defend the tank from enemy units.  That always worked against the computer.  Human opponents, of course, would figure that strategy out and defend against it.

Thz1he main defense against was to build anti-aircraft turrets, which would only attack the enemy commander using guided missiles.  We would build so many of these units around our bases that the screen would immediately fill up with missiles as soon as either command flew anywhere near the enemy base.  The game did not limit the number of units you created, so the only limit was the Sega Genesis’ hardware, which would struggle to keep up after a certain point.

As Kotaku’s guide points out, the real prototype RTS game was the PC game Dune II.  Like with Herzog, I did not know what to expect out of it.  My first thought was, “Ah, this is kind of like Sim City.”  But when I started creating soldiers and tanks and attacking and getting attacked by the enemy, I realized it was something special.  I’ve since enjoyed many RTS games over the years, particularly Warcraft II, Starcraft, Red Alert 1 and 2, Command & Conquer III, and The Lord of the Rings:The Battle for Middle Earth I and II.  The conventions invented for Dune II were used in all of them, and are still being used in the RTS games coming out today.

Unfortunately, the RTS experience on home consoles isn’t that great due to the lack of a keyboard and mouse, and the fact that PC monitors have a higher resolution than HD TVs, which makes them better for displaying large numbers of relatively small units.  I know that they’ve made improvements for playing those games with a controller, but that’s going to be a hard sell for me.  I’ve played so many of these games with a keyboard and mouse over the years, playing them with a controller feels very limiting.

On a side note, my copy of Herzog Zwei is for sale on Amazon.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Demo Assessment: Limbo


Limbo has the most distinctive graphics I’ve seen in a game.  It’s a beautiful, amazing game to look at.  As you can see from the screen shot, it’s incredibly minimalistic.  The puzzles (in the demo, at least) are similarly reductionist.  At most of the obstacles in the demo, my first thought was usually, “how in the world am I going to get past this?”  There is seemingly so little to work with, with the only buttons being jump and interact.  The boy that you control can’t jump very high or run very fast, so he he seems vulnerable and relatively helpless.

I enjoyed the demo and figuring out the puzzles in it.  As I mentioned, the game is very impressive and unique visually.  However, I don’t plan on buying it anytime soon.  Puzzle games are not my favorite, and the game’s pace much slower than what I want right now.  My tastes change all of the time, but I’m currently playing Transformers: War for Cybertron, and I can’t pull myself away from the game to place Limbo at this point.  But I can definitely see myself playing through it at some point in the future.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Thoughts on Video Game Movies

A movie based on a video game should only be made if the game has a good story that stands on its own.  To think that a movie should be made out of a game because the game is fun and popular is so absurd it’s hard to understand how anyone could believe it.  Cashing in on name recognition is the motivation of Hollywood, but there’s no reason to think a good movie will result.

Of course, when the movie fails commercially and critically, fans of the game blame that failure on the movie’s lack of fidelity to the game.  That is about the most idiotic thing imaginable.  Super Mario Bros was a great game.  To be faithful to the game, the movie could have been a 90 minute sequence of Mario and Luigi stomping on mushrooms and turtles, jumping on bricks and clouds, sliding down flagpoles, and shooting fireballs.  There would be very little dialog.  That would be a great movie – right, video game fans?  (I ask that rhetorically, but the scary thing is that there are probably people who would think that would be great as long as the movie had great special effects and Megan Fox playing the princess.)

3295839344_43dce716fcSomeone could say, “okay, Super Mario Bros wouldn’t work, but something like Street Fighter would.  That game had a great premise and would have made an awesome movie if they would have stuck to it.”  Of course, even fans of SF2 games admit the game’s story is nonexistent and the endings for each of the characters are pointless wastes of time – even the endings of the latest game, Super Street Fighter 3.

Here’s what I think goes through the mind of some video game fans. “Video game have great stories, but non-gamers don’t appreciate them because they think video games are childish or something.  If a movie was made of out game x, people would see how profound its story is and maybe even change their attitudes about video games.”  It’s hard to articulate just how wrong that kind of thinking is.  Every video game movie so far has had the opposite effect – instead of changing anyone’s mind about video games, they’ve cemented people’s beliefs that games have juvenile, hackneyed stories.

The answer to why video game movies are bad is obvious – games are good for reasons other than their stories.  Games don’t necessarily have bad stories, but the bar is so low that a mediocre story in a video game can seem a lot better to the gamer than it actually is.  A good game can make a bad story tolerable.  But if a game is bad, even a great story won’t save it from being bad.

Ironically, for all the complaining about video game-based movies not being faithful to their source material, people are praising the recently-released Mortal Kombat short (“Mortal Kombat: Rebirth”), which is completely unfaithful to any Mortal Kombat game I’ve ever played.  I don’t recommend watching the video since it’s a tasteless, pretentious piece of drivel, but if you must watch if you can find it here.  Why are they praising it?  Because it’s full of the pseudo-dark elements that the juvenile-minded think make a movie serious and profound.  But as I’ve mentioned before, fans of this type of stuff aren’t interested in exploring real evil, only a fantasy world where serial killers are interested in competing in martial arts tournaments.

In any case, if a game has a great story (i.e. a story that would be great in another context), I’m open to the possibility of a good movie being made based on it.  But people need to discard the idea that a movie can be good if it’s just faithful to the game.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Video Games Are Optional


There are not 1001 video games you must play before you die.  There’s not even one video game you must play before you die.  If there was a book titled, 1001 Stamps You Must Collect or 1001 Baskets You Must Weave, the absurdity would be obvious.  It should be just as obvious for lists of video games, books, movies, etc. that someone thinks you must consume.

Video games are a hobby.  Unlike gardening, hunting, and bicycling, their real world benefits are negligible to nonexistent.  99% of their value is entertainment.  Does that sound like something you must do?  If you played all 1001 of the games mentioned in this book, would your friends, coworkers, parents, and other people in your life be interested in hearing about it?  Mine wouldn’t, outside the few who enjoy video games, and even they wouldn't be that interested.

In fairness to the writer of this book, maybe the publisher chose the title.  It’s probably a book I’d enjoy flipping through.  But in the end they’re just games.  I’m guessing that most people on their deathbeds aren’t going to regret the games that they didn’t play.  They’re more likely to have some regrets about the amount of time they spent playing games.

Konami is Learning

First they announced Rush'N Attack: Ex-Patriot, now a new Contra game called Hard Corps: Uprising.  Konami seems to be following my advice.  Here’s a quick review:

The Wrong Way to Bring a Classic Game to a Modern Console:

Example 1 (Super Contra for XBox Live Arcade)


Example 2 (Contra:Rebirth For Nintendo Wii)


(If you look at the screen shot above and think, “those graphics aren’t too bad”, you need to realize that those are 16-bit caliber graphics.  The 16-bit era end 15 years ago).

The Right Way:

Example 1


Example 2


Keep it up, Konami!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Demo Assessment: The Bourne Conspiracy

For reasons too boring to go into, I decided to check out the demo of The Bourne Conspiracy game that was released about 2 years go.  The demo covers the escape from the US Swiss embassy that’s depicted in The Bourne Identity movie.  This Youtube video covers what’s in the demo:

The demo was frustrating for me.  Early into it, Bourne has to slide under a closing gate.  You can see this in the video.  If he doesn’t make it, you can reload the last checkpoint.  The load times aren’t particularly long, but attempting the gate slide (and failing) took less time than the checkpoint loading.  Nothing’s more certain to make a game frustrating than load times longer than gameplay times.  In addition, in order to slide under the gate, the player needs to press a button.  The specific button changes per attempt, and is revealed to the player at the time he needs to press it.  I’m not against this Dragons Lair-type system for getting past obstacles.  I thought Shenmue’s Quick Time Events worked well enough.  But, I don’t understand the need to randomize the button.  Shouldn’t the button roughly correspond to the action that the button will perform, and not just be random for the sake of making the task more difficult?  Also, does every wrong or late button press have to be a game-stopper?  Some contingencies would be nice, especially in the game’s demo where I would think they’d want to ease players into the system.

My other big problem in the game is the hand-to-hand combat.  This was an aspect of it that was praised in most reviews, but I didn’t like it, maybe because I’m just spoiled by the “Free-Flow Combat” system of Batman:Arkham Asylum


In the game, when Bourne fights a guy, he squares off with them boxing-style.  This doesn’t make any sense when there are multiple opponents.  Why put your arms in front of you when you’re surrounded by enemies?  That’s a great way to get a rifle butt stock to the back of the head.  Beyond that, when Bourne fights even low level embassy guards, he trades blows with them until knocking them out.  I’m sure the makers of this game saw the Bourne movies, so I’m not sure how they would have gotten that aspect of Bourne so wrong.  The only opponents that Bourne trades blows with are the highly-trained Treadstone/Blackbriar assets.  Everyone else he takes down with incredible speed and efficiency.

I know that the developers have to make it challenging, but the challenge should be true to the character.  If Bourne had to rely on primitive pugilistics to incapacitate enemies, he wouldn’t be able to function.

Batman:Arkham Asylum got it right.  They made Batman fight in an authentic, overpowering way, but still made the combat challenging and fun.  Of course Batman:AA was released after this game, so you can’t blame the developers for not studying a superior combat model.

That’s all I have to say about The Bourne Conspiracy.  I wanted to like the game.  It has good graphics and seems to capture the tone of the movies, but the gameplay doesn’t cut it.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Sick of Playing Level 1

Smb3 I’m too lazy and unqualified to critique the video game canon list created by video game scholars.  Everyone’s going to have their own ideas about what should and shouldn’t be on a list like that, but few people were continuously up-to-speed on developments in both the PC and console gaming worlds throughout the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s.   I have more gaming experience than most people, but I wouldn’t pretend to have enough perspective to be able to assess how important any particular game is.  It sure seems like a game like Doom is important, but didn’t Wolfenstein 3D pave the way for Doom?  How do you include Doom on the list but not Wolfenstein?  The list doesn’t seem important enough to put time or effort into researching and arguing for or against a game’s inclusion.  It would be a different story if I was getting paid to do that.

I’m mainly interested in the scholars’ defense of Super Mario Bros 3’s inclusion.  The article says it was included because, “its nonlinear play, a mainstay of contemporary games, and new features like the ability to move both backward and forward.”  I’ve got to agree with that reasoning and emphasize how cool a feature like that was and is.

In case anyone isn’t clear on what nonlinearity means, think of the first Super Mario Bros game.  The game always starts on level 1-1.  You beat the level and go to level 1-2.  At certain points you can warp ahead, skipping some levels.  But you can never go back, and never avoid starting the game on level 1-1.

Most of the games of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras are like that – certainly the majority of side-scrolling action/platform games.  Players just accepted that, but we were all secretly and not-so-secretly sick of playing level 1 every time we to played the game.

Super Mario 3 featured an overworld that meant the gamer didn’t have to always start the game at the first level.  He could play any level he previously passed.  This was unheard of at the time.

Super Mario 3 was not the first game to implement this.  Bionic Commando did have an overworld, but it’s wasn’t as nice.  In addition to the interface being clunky and unattractive, the lack of progress saving limited its usefulness.

Progress-saving combined with the overworld really put SMB3 ahead of its time.

I was an early adopter of the Genesis, and although I owned an NES, I was contemptuous of the NES, Nintendo, and gamers who only owned an NES (yes, I was a gaming elitist).  The 16-bit era had arrived, but Nintendo continued to milk the NES.  I realized that it made good business sense for Nintendo to do that, but I wished consumers would forsake their 8-bit consoles for the superior graphics and sound of the Genesis (or the TurboGrafx-16 – yeah right).  In any case, SMB3 is the one NES game that I was envious of.  I wished that game developers for the Genesis would have put some of those features in the 16-bit games.  But they didn’t get it, and some of them still haven’t gotten it.

The funny thing is, making a game non-linear would have been easy to do.  The overworlds themselves don’t have to be graphically impressive.  SMB3’s definitely was not beautiful.  They just have to work.  They’re basically graphical level selection screens.  That’s all they have to be.

MD_Sonic_the_Hedgehog-738766 Sonic the Hedgehog was released in 1991 – three years after the Japanese release of SMB3.  The developers would have know about the innovations of SMB3.  And while Sonic blew the Super Mario games out of the water in terms of graphics and sound (including Super Mario World for the SNES), its lack of an overworld and progress saving hurt its overall quality and in particular its replayablity.

Sega didn’t learn this until Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast.  As far as I know, that was the first Sonic game to have an overworld (which, at that point in gaming, had evolved into an immersive 3D environment with the same controls and graphical quality as the particular levels).  The Genesis Sonic games – Sonic 2, Sonic & Knuckles, Sonic 3 – all lacked an overworld and progress saving.  I’m not even convinced that the upcoming Sonic 4 will have a an overworld or more importantly, level selection.

Why didn’t more developers in the 80’s and 90’s see that as an important feature?  I’m guessing that it’s because nonlinearity does not sell games – at least not back then.  Gamers mainly wanted better graphics and sound.  We wanted screen shots of games showing the best the games had to offer graphically.  If a game had nice graphics, that was 75% of the sale.

Take a look at these screens:

These are from James 'Buster' Douglas Knockout Boxing and Arnold Palmer Tournament Golf, respectively.  At the time, those graphics were unbelievable.  When a person would come across an ad featuring those screens in a magazine, the only reaction was “wow!”  The games themselves were bad, but they were effective marketing for the Genesis.  They’re colorful, exciting, detailed, and beyond what was possible on the NES.

So the motivation for developers to put “deep” features like nonlinearity and progress saving in games was not as high as it was for them to load up games with cutting-edge graphics and sound.  That’s still the case.  Overworlds are not particularly exciting.  But as I said, they add to replayability, they make games less linear, and they make games feel more substantial.

The main lesson here is that the best features of games – the features that become standard in later generations of games – are often the small things that seem inconsequential.  Whereas the graphics will look less impressive over time, innovative and substantive features tend to stand out even when looking back at a game 20 years later.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Juvenile Plea for More Darkness

This recent post in asks for the upcoming Batman:Arkham Asylum 2 to be darker than its predecessor.  More specifically, it asks for more brutality and on-screen violence, including torture:

“…let's have some villains establish why they belong in Gotham's home for the criminally insane.”

“Let's have [Talia al Ghul] take three cops out in her first appearance.”

“Let's have [Two Face] flip his coin and shoot a nun or something.”

Is this writer asking for this type of content because he has some some kind of misanthropic worldview, or does he want to provoke gamers to contemplate something about the nature of man or the nature of the universe?  No.  Here are the reasons he gives:

“Let's have some villains establish why they belong in Gotham's home for the criminally insane.”

“Rather than let the audio diaries and in-game bios tell players why these people are bad, show us so we know who we're up against.”

I wonder how much this writer really wants to see.  Does he really want to see people getting murdered, beaten, tortured, raped and even cannibalized?

I would hope the answer to those questions would be no.  But if the answer is yes, my follow-up would be, “Really?  In stark detail?”

If the answer to that question is yes, then I would really want to know why someone is so eager to view vivid acts of violence in a video game.  Is there really a lot of entertainment value to be gotten out of that?  If so, isn’t that a little concerning?

But I suspect that someone would say that they want to see violence, but not in too much detail and nothing too heinous.  To that I would ask, “Why the limits?  If some carnage is effective in doing the things you say it does, wouldn’t more carnage and more realistic carnage be even better?”

Some Kind of Zombie NaziI think that this demonstrates that pleas for more darkness are disingenuous.  They want darkness, but they want it to be stylized and sanitized.  And they want it because it looks cool and has the superficial appearance being “serious” and “adult” -- not for any philosophical reasons.

Nazis are common villains in games, and it’s common for games to have Nazis doing all sorts of black magic, occult rituals, experiments designed to create supermen, summon demons, and other things out of comic books.  But I’m unaware of any games that get into the real acts of evil committed by the Nazis.  Gamers don’t seem to want that.  Real evil tends to be be sad and depressing – quite the opposite of the glamorous and stylized “darkness” that the juvenile-minded want more of.

That being said, the first Batman:Arkham Asylum is a dark, and the darkness makes the game more effective.  The game is a fantasy with a strong sense of realism that draws the gamer in.  The sense of realism is aided by the idea that the villains in the game are dangerous criminals that commit violent crimes.  Gamers aren’t likely to make an emotional investment in a universe where the villains are cartoons.  So a dark, serious tone is necessary for the game to be effective.

That effectiveness would actually be undermined if the game showed more violence/brutality than it does.  Killer CrocIn the game’s opening Batman comes across Killer Croc being transported through the prison by armed guards.  He’s in chains and is wearing a shock collar.  A voice on the loudspeaker says that the guards have permission to use deadly force if he tries anything.  He promises Batman that he’ll hunt him down, and then proceeds to his cell.  Throughout the game we hear some recorded interviews with Croc that reveal some details of his background, the main one being that he’s a cannibal.  That’s about all we really find out about him before Batman encounters him later in the game.  But during the build up to sequence of the game when Batman has to venture into Croc’s lair, the little we’ve seen/heard from him up to that point create a sense of dread.

Now, if the author the IGN article had its way, the game would have shown Killer Croc destroying stuff, killing people, eating people, etc.  “He’s supposed to be a killer, right?  The game needs to show him killing people.  It can’t just tell us that he’s dangerous, right?”  But that leaves nothing to the imagination.  Part of the fun is speculation and conjecture about what something/someone will be like.  Showing too much can kill that.

So instead of making blanket pleas for more darkness, I’d suggest that we ask for an effective story first, and that the dark and serious elements are tasteful and not done in a gratuitous way.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sega Gets It Right With After Burner:Climax

After_BurnerAfter Burner was a staple in arcades in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  It was almost impossible to go to an arcade and not see an After Burner machine.  In Terminator 2, John Conner plays After Burner in the mall arcade.  It’s an iconic game from that era.

Part of its draw was its attractive cabinet.  You wanted to play this game for the experience.  This was not something that could be replicated on home consoles.  You also wanted to play the game for its exciting visuals.  The screen was always full of enemy planes, explosions, and machine gun fire.  When you flew low the ground, you could see individual trees and hills.  When planes flew near you, you could see their camouflage paint jobs. AfterBurner2_(12b)The movie Top Gun, which came out around the same time, made jet fighter games particularly popular at that time.  But for kids who only owned an NES, the main option was the atrocious officially-licensed Top Gun game.TopGun_Normal

<Nelson Voice>Ha ha.</Nelson Voice>  If you were one of the minority of kids who owned a Sega Master System and could play After Burner at home rather than Top Gun, that was one of the few times when you’d be the envy of NES-owners, regardless of the quality of the SMS version (it was eventually released on the NES, but it was was a late, bad, low-profile release).

I bring this up because After Burner:Climax was just released for XBox Live Arcade, and it’s a great example of releasing a classic game the right way.  They didn’t just give us an emulated version of the original arcade game, or the Sega Genesis sequel, or the Playstation 2 sequel.  They gave us the most recent version of the game and enhanced it for our modern consoles, and it’s great:


After Burner:Climax is ideal for anyone who wants to play an After Burner game on a modern console.  HD, widescreen, achievements, and downloadable for $10.  That’s how it’s done.  I have a long list of Sega arcade classics that should get the same treatment.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Just Give Us the Best Version You Have

The Sega Genesis had many games that were ported from the arcade, most of which ran on the System 16 board.  The Genesis was pretty powerful for its time and its games were close to their arcade counterparts as a whole.  But, it wasn't quite as powerful as the System 16, so Sega couldn't just run the exact arcade games on the Genesis that ran on System 16.  When you compare them, it seems like Sega copied the sound and graphics from the arcade versions as closely as possible, but didn't and/or couldn't use any of the source files/code from the arcade versions, resulting in the Genesis versions looking and sounding slightly worse. Here's a comparison between the arcade and Genesis versions of Golden Axe:

Arcade Genesis

Now, kids who spent years playing NES and SMS games, were quite happy with the arcade adaptions on the Genesis.  We were used to game companies taking the names of arcade games and giving us completely different, usually bad versions of those games on the 8-bit consoles.  Here are some examples:

Double Dragon:
Arcade NES

Ninja Gaiden:
Arcade NES

Arcade SMS

Given the fact that cells phones -- let along modern gaming console -- are powerful enough to run the arcade versions these games, if they're going to release them on XBox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network, there's no reason to not release the better, arcade versions, right?  That is what they did, thankfully, with Shinobi.  I'm sure they didn't even consider releasing the Sega Master system version.

For some reason, however, for the Sega 16-bit classics like Altered Beast and Golden Axe, they chose the Genesis versions over the arcade versions.  Now, even if they did release the arcade versions I wouldn't buy them (they're good games that are still fun to play, but I'd like more enhancements to make them worth re-purchasing), but still, why not use the best versions available?

The story with Phantasy Star 2 is slightly different.   That game, being an RPG, never came out in the arcade and was a Genesis original.  That is the version on XBox live arcade.  However, an enhanced remake was released for the Playstation 2 in 2005 called Phantasy Star Generation 2.  It looks like it was only released in Japan.  Now that would be something I'd be willing to buy for XBox Live Arcade.  I have very fond memories of playing the original on the Genesis.  I'm not interested in playing that version today, but a version with enhanced graphics and sound would be quite attractive.  Give us that version!

Original Generation 2

This should be obvious, but people interested in buying remakes/re-releases of games on XBox Live want the best version of the games to date.  Anything less = guaranteed no sale (from me, at least).

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mega Man Franchise Moving Backwards

I was never a big fan of Mega Man games.  They always seemed frustratingly difficult.  Mega Man's standard weapon is underpowered.  You often need to fire at an advancing opponent and retreat since you can't stop it in time.  I realize that there needs to be a challenge, and that you shouldn't be able to simply overwhelm enemies with firepower.  But I like it when games give you a character that feels powerful, even when enemies are more powerful.  Mega Man has always felt weak.  The weapons you get from bosses all have limited ammunition, so you generally can't use them much since they need to be conserved for boss fights.  Many of them are fairly useless except for against specific bosses.  I like powerful weapons with plentiful ammo.  The limits of Mega Man's weapons take most of the enjoyment away from them.

Still, it's a classic game franchise that I would like to see remade properly on modern consoles.  A modern day 2D Mega Man that's HD, widescreen, has cool lightning effects, 3D backgrounds, and all the bells and whistles that come with modern games could be very compelling.  They could just take Mega Man 1 or 2, enhance it in those ways, and that would be fine with me.  But Capcom found it easier to release this:

That's a screen from Mega Man 10, recently released for XBox and PS3.  Now, it's obvious that Capcom is trying (and succeeding, for some) to appeal to gamers who enjoy old school games.  I'm glad they're trying, because those games are a lot of fun.  But, why not give us the same 2D, 8-bit action done with all of the advantages and power of modern consoles?  They did it with Bionic Commando, why can't Mega Man get the same treatment?

Am I the only one that thinks it's absurd that a Mega Man game released today doesn't look at good as Mega Man games released over 10 years ago?:

The screens above are from the games Mega Man & Bass and  Mega Man: The Power Battle.  Shouldn't the graphics of Mega Man 10 be at least as good as the graphics of those games?  If you think the old school gamers would be upset that it doesn't look like the Mega Man that they remember, read the glowing reviews of Bionic Commando:Rearmed.  Fans of the original, like myself, consider it the best possible way of paying homage to and re-creating the experience of playing the NES game.

Yes, the reviewers at IGN gave Mega Man 10 a good score, and I'm sure that Mega Man fans will enjoy it.  I'm sure it's a good game.  But come on, we didn't buy our XBox 360s and Playstation 3s to emulate NES games.  Let's have higher standards for our remakes, and maybe we'll get a Mega Man that looks like this: