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:

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bringing a Classic Game to Modern Consoles The Right Way

I was not a fan of the 8-bit NES / arcade game Rush'n Attack. But the planned remake looks cool.

It looks like Konami saw the awesome Bionic Command:Rearmed and decided to try with one of their old games.  I'll definitely check it out when it's released, but I'm wondering why Konami opted for Rush'n Attack over something like Contra.  Contra is one of the most fondly-remembered 8-bit games.  The Contra code is famous.  Rush'n Attack, on the other hand, was the kind of game people bought because they thought the name was clever, and because it sounded like fun to run around killing commies with knives and machine guns.  In the days before downloadable demos, that kind of thing is all we had to go on.  Unfortunately it was a pretty bad game.  Repetitive, slow-paced, and fairly difficult if I remember correctly.  I'm sure the remake will be good, but I still don't understand that choice given the alternatives.

In any case, I'm glad to see Konami realizing that gamers appreciate some effort going into bringing classic games to modern consoles. As opposed to this:

Ughhh...that image alone makes me sick to my stomach. You know what's better than that? 1) Contra on MAME. 2) Contra III on a Super NES Emulator. 3) ANYTHING.

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. But I won't pay one penny to play a non-optimized, emulated version that runs in a letterboxed window, so don't waste your time.

Edit: I just discovered that Konami did release a new Contra game for the Wii last year called Contra ReBirth. IGN gave the game a decent score, but those graphics -- yikes!  Contra III for the SNES looks much better.  That is not rebirth, Konami, that's more like a zombified Contra, dug up and reanimated in a grotesque, vile form through evil magic, a.k.a. a half-assed development effort.  Those graphics can't be considered acceptable by today's standards on any console.  Thankfully, the new Rush'n Attack screens show that Konami is putting a little more effort into their next 8-bit remake.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Batman: Arkham Asylum -- How I Came Around

Since I acquired an XBox 360, I've downloaded a lot of demos of games that I have no interest in buying or playing for more than 10 minutes. I wanted to see the graphics and sound that the games today are capable of. But I didn't have that much interest in becoming immersed in a game. Batman: Arkham Asylum was the game that overcame that resistance.

I was initially impressed with the game's graphics. The demo first has Batan fighting a room full of goons. I found that fun, but it was nothing mind-blowing. I thought the best part was how the game zooms in and goes into slow motion when Batman delivers the final blow to the last goon standing. It was cool, but I didn't think I'd want to play an entire game of doing just that.

The demo then has Batman intervene in a hostage situation. This introduces the user to "detective mode", which is a visual filter Batman can use to see useful things in the environment. Using this mode, Batman has to sneak around a room and surprise the hostage-taker from above. I tried to complete this part of the game a few times and just couldn't do it. At that point I gave up on the game. I kept the demo on my XBox just so I could show the graphics to my friends and family members.

One evening a week or two later, I decided to take one more stab at getting past the hostage room in the demo. I was able to get past it that time. I'm very glad I did, because that's when game got really interesting.

The next part and final part the demo introduced me to "invisible predator" mode, where Batman has to neutralize a room full of armed thugs. If they notice him, they open fire and often kill Batman before he can escape. Batman can use a variety of tactics and gadgets to successfully neutralize all of the henchmen. Once I played though this part, I was hooked. Using Batman's different types of takedowns is just awesome and really makes the gamer feel like Batman. The moves are easy to execute, but timing everything correctly and using an optimal strategy is challenging and addictive. "Invisible predator" mode is just executed so beautifully. The game would be worth it for just those "challege rooms" that can be unlocked in the full version of the game.

So as I implied, the quality of the demo persuaded me to buy the full version of the game. I've now played through the game completely and remain impressed and really in awe of how good modern games can be. I'll have more thoughts about this game in an upcoming post comparing 2D and 3D games.