You take games too seriously.

Dance Dance Emo-lution

My recent posting hiatus can be blamed on a lot of things – my thesis being due, my job being insane, a few family crises – but really, what it all comes down to is this:

I don’t know what to say about The World Ends With You.

TWEWY (I hate to go the acronym route, but good god, I can’t write that title over and over) is, as anyone who has kept up with the trickle of non-GTA gaming news still on the internet knows, the new Nintendo DS action-RPG created by the Kingdom Hearts team and designed by Square character design mastermind Tetsuya Nomura.

In a rare and glorious departure, though, the game is set in a world that resembles our own. To the extent that Shibuya, Tokyo’s youth fashion epicenter, can be considered the real world. Instead of some steampunk future, some magical village, or Halloweenland, you’re travelling through packed intersections and ramen shops.

I’ve already talked a little bit about what makes the gameplay so special. The level of customization I talked about there – the on-the-fly difficulty adjustments that encourage playing the game at the exact level you like best, from super hardcore to blissfully easy – is just the beginning. The game allows you to restart failed battles at a lower difficulty level, completely avoids random battles, and allows you to play the two-character combat with as little attention to one character as you wish.

And that two-character combat model, the game’s odd combination of selling point and detraction, both pushes the possibilities of the DS to its furthest limit and shows just how insanely overcomplicated the system can be. You control one character with the stylus – the one you must control – and one with the d-pad (in Dance Dance Revolution-style combos), the one you don’t have to, necessarily. The game rewards you for playing as hard as you can, but you can take on most encounters with a decidedly casual difficulty level. 

How this pays off for the story and the direction, after the jump.

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Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Reviews, , , , , , , ,

Early to the Party: Space Invaders Extreme

Awesome down to its Turkish-rug box art.

There are few things nerdier than importing a game. It’s either to buy something before everyone else, relying on GameFAQs for rough translations of the Japanese and puzzling through the non-localized weirdness, or to buy something you can’t get in the US, because you just can’t get a good Witch-fondling game at your local GameStop.

Sometimes, though, it’s totally worth it. Sometimes there’s that game out there that you need, no matter the cost, no matter the absurdity of paying twice as much to get it a month or two early. For me, that game is the stellar Space Invaders Extreme. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, jump to it.

Like Pac-Man: Championship Edition, its spiritual predecessor (and a game I’d shortlist for Best Game Ever), this isn’t just a port of the game for a new system. Because there have already been four or five of those for Space Invaders on the DS alone. This is a refinement, a reimagining, taking the spirit and the core mechanics of the original and expanding them with an inventiveness that borders on sacrilege.

For Space Invaders Extreme, that means jettisoning the one thing that most identifies Space Invaders’ gameplay – the defensive shields that line the bottom of the screen. With those gone, the game switches over into fast-paced, powerup-heavy shooting with a sole emphasis on moving back and forth and shooting things. In fact, if it weren’t for the sprite art (those iconic pixelated bad aliens – including, far more frequently than in the arcade, the bonus UFO), it would be easy to mistake for Galaga.

That’s what I love about Pac-Man: CE and Space Invaders Extreme – they take thrilling mechanics from the next-gen and the retro games, marry them with style, sound, and a shocking variance of play modes, and create something instantly familiar but infinitely challenging. 

Pac-Man will be fun forever, which is more than I could really say for Space Invaders – a game that has been improved upon, specialized upon both by railed, top-down space shooters and the back-and-forth action of a thousand casual internet games. Which is why it’s a stunning accomplishment that Space Invaders Extreme is so damn good.

Walk, don’t run, as soon as the game drops. Or, join me in importing, for the gimmicky (don’t count on the people who say it’s essential – those people are the worst kind of game importers) paddle controller – infinitely important if you love throwing your money away on gimmicky controllers.

Wait, why exactly isn’t Taito bringing the paddle controller to the US?

 – Sam Ryan

Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Retro Today, Reviews, , , , , ,

Baby’s First Sword

ninja gaiden ds2

A few days ago, over coffee and Scrabble, my friend announced plans to buy his five-year old son a Nintendo DS and a couple games to jump-start his kid’s collection. He asked my opinion about children’s games, and I gave him my usual spiel: surely, there are great games exclusively for children, but rather than patronize the boy, give him something normal gamers play like Mario Kart DS, or Animal Planet, or Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. And he splashed his coffee in my face, and bid me good day!

Actually, he let me explain, and, as usual, I mumbled, chased my tail, and recanted my recommendation. And, as usual, I thought up the perfect reply a few hours later–coincidentally while building the perfect scrambled egg sandwich.

First, I believe for videogames to best educate children they need a context, usually best provided via an additional component: a family member, a teacher, or, possibly, a book. Though I respect edutainment games, without proper support, they often confuse children. For example, a New York children’s game firm recently had children play a first-person game where their avatar was as an illegal immigrant.

One particular level went as follows. The player steps into the first-person perspective of the illegal immigrant. He immediately witnesses a terrible accident, but when he stays to help the injured people, the ambulance driver reports him for deportation. Game Over. Insert credit. A young girl retries the level, but, thinking she learned from her classmate’s mistake, chooses to run away from the accident. Game Over. She’s punished for abandoning the people in need.

Children are used to games where you win. In this situation, they were forced to lose. Many children hated the game for putting them in this uncomfortable situation, and refused to read or listen to additional information provided by the game. Teachers were necessary to explain the situation, calm the children’s anxieties, and answer any questions.

So how, in any way, is Ninja Gaiden: DS (Dragon Sword and Dual Screen, well-played Tecmo) educational? It’s a virtual workbook, best supported by a strong teacher.

Teachers help explains workbooks and offer assignments, so, let me just don these sharp glasses and this over-worn tie—ink stains, no biggie. Great! Welcome to Prof. Plante in the Case of the Shaky Recommendation. Students, please grab your Ninja Gaiden workbooks.

Notice how the game requires the player to hold the DS not in the usual horizontal fashion, but vertical, like a small book. Many of NG: DS’s best qualities come from this brilliant design choice. Now, turn on your games, open a new file, and make sure to play on Normal—Hardcore Gaieden-ites, you’ll have your day.

The player’s placed immediately into a duel against Ryu, and allowed to explore her move-set with no rules or guides. The sequence, featuring Ryu and Momiji, isn’t hostile, but a spar between friends. It’s an important, explorative moment, that allows for creativity and discovery. Since the basic moves aren’t locked, an advanced player may learn a trick or two from the confrontation, while a younger player may surprise herself by unintentionally performing a multi-hit combo.

Afterwards, the player’s carefully informed of the basic touch screen moves: poke there and Ryu throws a shuriken, pull across here and he slashes, whip up and he jumps. Combined with the DS’s book-like format, the game mechanic resembles a pop-up book. Each screen, or page, requires the player to follow basic physical actions—pull, push, and poke—to get the page’s available reactions. When they complete the page, they progress to the next, receive a little more of Gaiden’s story, then re-perform the physical actions for a new set of reactions.

Video games further ruin the youth of today after the jump….

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Filed under: Commentary, Portable Media, Story Analysis, , , , ,

Late to the Party: Puzzle Quest

Puzzle Quest

 One of the things about being a hardcasual / midcore / harmcore (the last is actually the name of the hardcore band I was once in) gamer is that you’re not always going to be the first one to the party. In fact, it might be months after the buzz that you pick up a game – after some discount-bin surfing or some finally-having-time-for-it (sorry, Mass Effect, you’re going to stay in that pile for a while). Hence, a new feature: Late to the Party Reviews.

To initiate the column, I decided I’d give Puzzle Quest DS a shot. This is the exceptionally well-reviewed, fawned over puzzle-RPG, which I must give credit for giving gaming a new, unlikely hyphenate. It spent some time on the PC before moving to the PSP, XBLA, and the DS, my puzzler platform of choice.

Let’s get down to it – I love puzzlers. I’ve been playing Peggle’s challenge mode on my iPod for months now, I played Professor Leyton with a dedication and fury I haven’t given anything since BioShock, and my Live friends may notice that I’ve dropped a bit of time into Hexic HD. 

This game, though, breaks every fundamental rule of the things I enjoy about puzzle games.

 Its pick-up-and-play nature is broken up with completely arbitrary fantasy cliches – may I never have to “slay an orc” again as long as I live – and talking heads that last longer, and have none of the charm of, the often-amusing ones in Professor Leyton. These scenes, not to mention the useless overworld map, break up the gameplay with nothing but tedium and blandness.

 But that’s the game’s choice, and great gameplay can trump story – especially when we’re considering that our game in question here is a puzzle game for a portable console. My expectations were never to be wowed by the story, because this was all about the fun, challenging gameplay.

Learn how wrong I was after the jump.

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Filed under: Portable Media, Reviews, , , ,

iPhone’s TKO


Wedbush Morgan’s game analyst, Michael Pachter, expressed my feelings on the ‘iPhone as gaming messiah’ in a simple point.

I don’t see it as a viable gaming platform, due to the cost of owning one. The iPhone costs $400 plus an AT&T wireless subscription for voice and data, I’m guessing this is $80 a month, so the addressable market doesn’t really fit the core gamer demographic.”

My issues with the touch screen, Apple’s inexperience, and bland game releases, all mean nothing compared to the all-mighty dollar.

Will you pay a $400 buy in and $80 a month for portable Spore? Or will you avoid it like the Noid?

Next-Gen.Biz: Pachter: iPhone Gaming Not Commercially Sound
Image: Link


Filed under: Industry, Portable Media, , ,

Chao’s Dead. Long Live Chao!

Did you respond to a single point I made? Your counter-points sound like cut/pastes from flame wars. You don’t like buttons because of the N-Gage? Try out an NES emulator on an iPhone. The lack of physical response undermines the platform.

Sure, the iPhone is not built for old school games. It is suited for games yet designed. But if you’re telling me bread and water indie companies can afford to try out complicated new mechanics—mechanics that feel responsive and finessed—you’re sorely mistaken. Wii games have found success on novelty, but more and more designers dread the time and money required to develop intuitive controls for an exclusive Wii release. Why waste that effort, when casual players will pay the same price for Gingerbread Warrior or any other release equivalent to a flash game? I think better companies might soon head for better pastures (i.e.: Suda 51), and leave smaller studios to publish the vomitware. If not for Nintendo’s own releases, the system would resemble the ill-fated Atari 2600.

Do not be surprised if this novelty issue happens with the iPhone.

As for criticizing the Skate 2 idea and Fable, I figured you would extrapolate the example yourself. Of course, Sam, all portable mini-games won’t be level grinders. There are many different ways to accomplish connectivity, and you named a great one: the VMU Chao from Sonic Adventures.

Like many Sega ideas, the VMU was far ahead of its time, and you can thank it for many iPhone and DS design choices. But let’s focus on the Chao. You ignore the popularity of products like Webkinz. A smart developer would put a Webkinz app on the iPhone that could connect and directly affect the Webkinz on the family iMac or PC. Kids would beg their parents to buy the app, funneling even more cash into the massive Webkinz industry. So I’ll agree the iPhones not so bad, and you’ll agree about the Chao.

Yet, to keep this short (after your long-winded hubbub), I feel you doubt the power of the game medium. It is odd that you seem to believe there’s an impassable gulf between regular gamers and casual gamers: people who will play on the sofa and those who’ll never step out from their safe Minesweeper corner.

I think you do the industry wrong, and have subconsciously propagated the myth that there are gamers and there are normal people. We both know that’s not true. Simply, I believe in the next five years platforms like the Wii and iPhone will spread gaming, but it will flourish on consoles. As I said, casual games are the seed for gaming habits, much like cartoons and newsreels were the seeds that helped launch the film industry from novelty to a respected medium and art form nearly a century ago.

I concede, the iPhone will find success; I assumed that the moment I learned of the SDK. But that wouldn’t make for a good argument, would it?

Yet, I’m not prepared to call the iPhone God’s gift to gamers. I think it will please iPhone owners, and might persuade those on the edge to finally make the switch. I do not believe, though, gamers will pick up the iPhone as a new portable console. While it will find success as a great phone with wonderful options, I do not see players putting away their Zunes or DSs or PSPhones. They especially won’t as the line between gamer and casual player diffuses; as gamers, as a whole, shift from a minority to a majority; and while three of the strongest names in game refuse to share their pie.

Image: NetRaptor

Filed under: Commentary, Industry, Portable Media, , , , , ,

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