Friday, February 27, 2015

HoriPad for iOS: Finally an MFi Controller Done Right

I want to buy a wiiU, but I can't justify the 300 dollar price tag for a system that has only four games on it that I want to buy... one of them (Xenoblade Chronicles X) not even released yet. But among the titles I want that ARE available is Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.

I've always wanted to get into Monster Hunter. I know it is a hugely multiplayer affair, which normally isn't my bag, but co-operative multiplayer is fine. I like it in Dark Souls, it is one of the only draws for me in Destiny, it is probably awesome in the Monster Hunter Series. MH also ticks a lot of the other checkboxes for what I want in an action-RPG. But this isn't a post about Monster Hunter. It is about the piece of gear that made Monster Hunter available to me.

At this point you have to be a massive dick-snob to unilaterally dismiss touchscreen gaming. It is true that the selection of games is skewed way over to the disposable, the shallow, and the irritating... the latter particularly apparent in the dominant forms of monetization. Free-to-play and In-App Purchases are usually truly execrable. Very few devs seem to have figured out how to make these plans palatable and respectful-seeming to gamers. Not that gamers universally deserve respect. But I do.

There are some genuine diamonds in touchscreen gaming. Some of them are even in that disposable, casual space that veteran gamers seem to be so dismissive of. Not even remotely in that space is Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, originally released in 2008 for the Sony PSP. Updated for iOS in 2014, by the looks of all the reviews it is a stellar port. I have iOS devices. I can play THIS Monster Hunter.

But there is just one problem. Monster Hunter is a third-person action game, a genre really, REALLY designed with two PHYSICAL analog controls (read thumbsticks) in mind. Reviewers say the touchscreen controls in MHFU work well, but I had trouble with 'em. I have an iCade with modified stick and buttons that helps me overcome touchscreen difficulties with some games, but iCade implementation is spotty amongst development houses, and not likely to get better since Apple backed a new controller initiative called MFi a while back. MFi support is easy to plug into iOS games and some companies like SNK Playmore have really taken this by the horns.

When MFi was first announced, the company Steelseries raced some controllers to market and pretty much copped all the initial hubbub about 'ooh, physical controls on my iPad'. But they aren't all that good, frankly. They were expensive and to a gamer base that was used to pretty decent stock controllers on their consoles (PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One), they were either flimsy or odd or both. Especially for the asking price. But at E3 last year, even more MFi controllers were trotted out by various hardware developers, prominent amongst them MadCatz... and not as prominently, Hori. That meant something to me because I frickin' swear by Hori's arcade joysticks on my consoles. I love 'em. So Hori showed an MFi controller that looked a lot like the Playstation DualShock layout on an Xbox 360-shaped controller. But when their projected release date came due, the controller didn't arrive in stores. And subsequent release info on it got to be pretty scarce or unreliable. Amazon listed it, but that looked more hopeful than anything else.

Welp, I finally got one. At between 70 and 80 dollars, it is still on the steep side (compared to stock console controllers) but a bit cheaper than some of the other MFi choices. It is considered an 'extended scheme' controller. So if you go look at a list of compatible games on a site like bear that in mind. The issue seems mostly to come into play for me when a game only uses the 'standard scheme' and doesn't map to the expected control on the extended device, as with Cave's Deathsmiles mapping movement to the HoriPad's directional pad instead of to the left analog thumbstick. Deathsmiles still works like this, it just isn't ideal.

The Horipad is a rechargeable console-style controller. The impression that it is the size and shape of an Xbox 360 controller from the E3 footage is accurate. It is not a mini controller designed to be 'so portable, just like your iPad!'. And it adds yet another rechargeable device to the legion most people probably own now, with the battery inside probably responsible for most of the heft on this thing. It is solidly built and all the buttons and sticks have a good feel... quite a bit, again, like the Xbox 360 controller, though the location of the sticks isn't offset. They are lined up on either side of the bottom edge like a Dualshock.

Hooking up to my iPad and iPhone through Bluetooth was a snap, though the lighting scheme and use of the power button were a little confusing until I looked at the included instructions. There doesn't seem to be much lag when playing Monster Hunter or DeathSmiles, something of a consideration for Bluetooth devices. The thumbtacks have a rubberized upper surface for grip, and have good stiffness and travel distances. It comes with a USB cord for charging, but no USB-to-outlet converter. I just plugged it into AC pak for an iPad or a Nook and it worked great.

An additional lack of concession to portability, the Horipad doesn't include any sort of clip to attach it to your iPhone or iPad. There is a little foldable easel-thing that your touchscreen slots into... and it does hold it upright. But this just reinforces the impression that Hori was thinking a gamer would make a sort of tabletop console out of it. An iPad played in one's lap wouldn't suffer much, but using your iPhone is awkward. It didn't create a problem for me since most of the games I want physical controls for are on the larger touchscreen, but if iPhone games are a player's main concern, this isn't the most convenient solution.

I'm also going to give it a slight knock for an aesthetic choice also. To me, the pics Hori put out for this thing make it look like it is a silky black controller with a white plate surrounding the thumbsticks. Actually, the body has a super glossy finish, and the thumbstick plate is a tacky, cheap-looking chrome silver. Just weird design decisions on what 'feels' like a near-premium product.

Given the build quality and the console controller-ishness of the layout, I can almost wholeheartedly recommend this thing, with the small aforementioned caveat about no phone clip. If you don't have to have the controller be tiny and portable like an iPhone, then this is probably the best MFi controller out there. For games that would benefit from physical controls, and gamers that want to eke a console style experience out of their touchscreen it might be the only real choice...especially for the fussy, so-called 'hardcore'.

Now to give this Monster Hunter thing a go. At last.

Monday, January 5, 2015

(to keep Google from deleting this thing)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Evil, and Not In a Good Way


Evil Twin: Cyprien's Chronicle for the Sega Dreamcast

Thirty hours or so of my life I'll never get back and I stubbornly, doggedly, stupidly worked my ass off to make that happen. This may be the worst game I've ever played to completion. But let's begin at the beginning.

I acquired this game ages ago from a local import store... local to where I was living at the time, Maryland. I was attracted by the art style and the fact that from what little info I could glean it was a 3d platformer. It was near the end of the Dreamcast's short lifespan as a regular retail product, but I still didn't have much in the way of platforming games for it and I'd had a fine time with the two Sonic Adventure games.

To get the good out of the way (and this'll be very short) it DOES have a pretty cool twisted fairy tale look to it. Although the framerate frequently bogs down and the number of polygons is low by today's standards it is still an interesting game to look at. It could be seen as a sort of companion piece, graphically, to the American McGee Alice games-- especially the first Alice. The music is really good. I've read the soundtrack described as 'mostly ambient sounds' in reviews but that's crap. To go along with the Burton-esque visuals, the game has a very definite Elfman-esque soundtrack, some of the tunes quite memorable. The voice acting is also decent with plenty of somewhat adult humor, and I'd swear there are some name actors amongst the voicing, like Terry Jones and Robbie Coltrane, though I haven't tried to investigate this thoroughly. They are not credited in the manual. The whole sensory package aspect is attractive and one of the two main reasons I stuck with the game right to the end. I wanted to see and hear everything there was to see and hear.

Also there was the time investment. When I read a book or watch a film, even if it is abysmal I usually try to stick it out. Whether that's through some usually-misplaced idea that it SHOULD get better or whether I just hate having put a time investment into something and then leaving it undone, I don't know. In the case of Evil Twin, I'm going with the latter. When I first put the game in years ago, I played it a while but just got tired of its shortcomings. Then after enough time had passed to salve over the frustrations, I'd pick it up again and play through a little more. The problems with the game exaggerated of course, by my having to figure out where I'd left off in the levels and the narrative. Over the years I've probably had three runs at the game, each covering a day or two. Recently I decided to stop farting around and just finish it. Determined to finish it.

That mindset put me on the path to mental ruin, one I was determined not to stray from no matter all the warning signs and opportunities to bail.

That's because every other aspect of the game is horrible. During the previous plays, I think I just thought the trouble was me and my sporadic playing, 'Of course it is going to be tough, I'm not really putting serous time in on it'. Actually, no. The game plays like ass. It is the very definition of that certain type of euro-game, a game designed by a European studio, that has great style but completely misses the mark that makes Japanese or American games playable. Evil Twin is French. Obviously, I'm drawing a very stark generalization there. But in the main, there seems to be some truth to this. If you want an exception to the rule, most of the French-made Rayman games seem to dodge the euro-game's penchant for horrible mechanics. Game studios in the modern era are bigger and more 'international' so I'm probably being a predjudicial ass for bringing this up. Studious like Crytek and Croateam make awesome games and they are euro devs. Maybe it was a nineties thing mostly. Anyway.

 Challenge is one thing, but when the majority of the challenge is trying to wrestle with how to work around a game's shortcomings?... that's bad.

Where even to start? 3d platforming games, or the 3d platforming sections of other generes, are a tough nut as it is. Placing your character in a tricky jump can be infinitely more complicated and difficult when you have three axes of movement over the traditional two.  Mario 64 showed it could be pulled off with panache. Nintendo dialed in just what the player needed in a camera and in the controls, both sensitivity and on-the-fly correction. The Sonic Adventure titles didn't have as good a camera, but Sonic himself had pretty great tools to navigate the levels and the game detected use of the homing dash pretty accurately over parts that could've otherwise really been frustrating. Every game involving intricate jumping from a 3d viewpoint struggles with how to make it challenging... but in all the right ways... and the fruits of that struggle pass on to the player frequently for the worse. Why? Why couldn't devs figure this out? I recently also finished Metroid Prime's remake on the wii. I was shocked at how well (Nintendo again) the platforming worked. Metroid's formula wasn't to make the jumps themselves overly difficult... Samus has plenty of oomph to her jumps AND the ability to control her descent somewhat, AND a bit of floatiness to give you a bit of extra correction time... but in the nature of each area's construction, with the player having to figure out where to go, usually vertically. The jump physics weren't the most realistic, but it sure made the game playable. It was fun, and if you failed a jump it was pretty obvious you weren't equipped to make it. The game let you know from the get-go that you weren't supposed to spend a ton of time figuring out if the holdup was lack of an item or just shitty playing. If you were supposed to make the jump at that time, you made it easily.

Evil Twin has just about everything wrong with it's platforming. Other aspects of the game are buggy and confusing, but it is something you can deal with. And in fact, parts of the game other than the platforming are kind of fun. The parts where you can freely explore a hub area or the boss fights. But the camera sucks. The controls suck. Collision detection sucks. Cyprien's shadow (for placing just where you are in a jump) sucks. Bugs and wonkiness abound.

A typical example: Tricky platforming segment. Narrow planks on which Cyprien must jump, frequently moving or the kind that drop out from under you if you stay put more than a second or two. Also more often than not, a failure leads to death, not just a drop down to an earlier area for you to make your way back up. This is the kind of thing that in a 2d platformer, assuming tight controls, a player deals with all the time and is, in fact, a trope of the genre. But in Evil Twin, you must do this looking from behind Cyprien, jumping him forward into the screen. Cyprien jumps for greater distance the longer you press the jump button, and the platforms are unevenly spaced. His shadow is slow to be drawn under him (or the ground between the platforms is too far down for you to see the shadow). On wide or round platforms the shadow sort of works... you have time for a bit of midair correction. On narrow planks, as in this example, you will not have time. Cyprien is not floaty in any way.

Now. At times the game camera does swing out and view Cyprien from the side OR you can rotate the camera to do so. But here's the complications to THAT. A sidelong camera doesn't always pan along with Cyprien. It ROTATES. So as Cyprien jumps the camera stays in its place an rotates to keep Cyprien in view. The camera 'wants' to be behind Cyprien, the default view. So if he jumps while you view him from the side, at the end of the jump you will see him from behind in a three-quarter view. And the controls are relational to the camera. So at the end of the jump, the sideways movement you held jumping him forward in 2d view now moves him diagonally or even sideways. So you'll need to re-orient the camera back to Cyprien's side if you want to jump from the 2d vantage again. A laborious process at best, and totally impossible on those sections where the platforms drop out from under you. You don't have time for such camera tomfoolery. You are forced to leave the camera behind Cyprien so that the view is fixed and the contols won't change on you as you negotiate the series of jumps.  Even in the sections where it fixes on a 2d view, You can still move Cyprien toward or away from the screen. Coupled with the Dreamcasts slippery analog controller, it is a common occurence to have Cyprien fall off the front or back edge. It is inexcusable to have intricate, variable 2d platforming sections without the player character 'locked onto' a rail that only works in two dimensions. Can you imagine having to make sure Mario didn't take a step or two towards or away from you as you did all that jumping in Super Mario World? If the d-pad could be used so that you were sure you were going ONLY left-right or up-down, that might've helped, but Cyprien's movement is only on the analog nub.

It just goes on. Cyprien grabs ledge edges and hauls himself up. Except when he doesn't. This mechanic could go a long way toward making up for the difficulty in orienting yourself during jumps. But it is extremely capricious. And you have no way of knowing ahead of time which 'edges' are candidates for grabbing and which aren't.

I don't know how the controls are in the PS2 or PC versions, but the DC's are really fucking sensitive. I was constantly hauling Cyprien back from almost running off the far end of a plank or platform. Which is itself a symptom of his shadow being useless for placement, and lack of floatiness for correction. The player must push the stick all the way forward to make sure Cyprien makes the jump, but often that is TOO far. This happens in quite a few 3d platformers, sure, but Cyprien has little in the way of jump correction on the way down. There's a reason a bit of unrealistic play exists in the best 3d platforming games and Evil Twin is an example of a game with all of that shorn out.

My kid let out a loud 'whaaaa?' when he watched me land squarely on a huge expanse and then just drop through it to my death. Although it wasn't exactly common for this kind of bug to kill my player character, on top of  the other difficulties it became one more weight on the scales of frustration. The game has save points that are few and far between, and on later sections waaaay far back from progress through the level. I spent a lot of time knowing I should go all the way back and save after accomplishing something important, but dreading the monumental work to get back. AND saves are an inventory item. So unless you explore pretty thoroughly (which isn't encouraging), you might actually be low on the ability to save.

The graphics, interesting though they were, led to another issue. They are so stylised and so gnarly and intricate in places, that I wasn't really sure what I was seeing. That's a problem in a game where you have to 'figure out' where to go. The game is kinda like Metroid or Zelda where access to an area is granted after you gain an item. But it was dreadfully unclear just where the next path was. Cyprien has a journal/objective book but it is pretty vague. And some of the hubs and levels are so complicated, that if I put the game down for even a day or two, it was hard to remember the layers of quests and where I was going. In this game you need to take notes. Some items you get you don't use until much later in the game, so long that I really forgot I'd even had them and I only progressed by throwing my hands up and going back through my inventory to try equipping things to see what that'd trigger. That's old computer adventure kinda shit. Really poor signposting. I'd have done better to keep my own notes on inventory items AND what exits or paths the game showed to me as I flipped switches. The game wants you to really explore and note all this out of the way stuff, but the controls and other issues make this such a chore it discourages exploration. I frequently found myself just getting through a level in the most linear fashion I could, and that's no way to play a game where the major hook is the visuals.

So you've got buggy, dodgy jumping and a lot of it. Slippery controls and iffy edge detection and grabs. The worst camera ever. Limited Resident Evil-style save items, and frequently inconvenient save points in a game guaranteed to kill you many many times. Not to mention, obscure objectives and paths that you'll need a guide to sort out. So why did I keep at it?

I'm not sure. There was just a point where I'd put in enough time... so that even when I realised the 'kinda-ropey' jumping stuff at the beginning was only going to get worse... I couldn't just abandon it. Maybe the very evil of the whole thing made me want to conquer it, if only to say I did it and then complain about it. Like some players fancy conquering kuso-ge on a regular basis. But normally, that ain't me. I have a good track record of buying games that turn out to be good. Good enough to finish without regrets. For every Splatterhouse (finished and didn't like) there are dozens of games in my to-play stack that turn out to be a decent choice. I wound up using a guide MUCH more frequently for this game than I care to because I just wanted to get it over with. Even figuring out how to beat a boss, a part of games I really enjoy normally, was just not something I wanted to deal with when getting back to the boss room would be ANOTHER horrific bout of platforming.

So stay the hell away from this game. Seriously. I VERY rarely ebay a game after I've played it, but I think this one's outta here. Its saving grace, probably due to relative rarity, is that it seems to hold a pretty decent price for resale. But even a crazy-good return for selling this thing wouldn't be enough to get that time or sanity back!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What's Up...

Probably should get back to this posting thing.

So currently being part of the great statistic, the unemployed, in addition to video gaming I've set out some educational goals. To wit: learning C++, the Unity game engine, and the 3d graphics software Blender. Pretty much to get my feet wet in the 'creative' end of computer crap, since almost all of my adult working life has been spent working at screens and keyboards doing very productive utilitarian sorts of things. Can't hurt to have knowledge of this stuff on the resume, particularly C++, and there's only so much time one can spend poring over job listings.

These ideas could all go in the crapper tomorrow if I get hired somewhere.

Anyway. Finished Metroid Prime on the wii a few days ago. Good stuff though my patience for all the backtracking and experimenting that comes with Metroid(-style) games means I can't take a steady diet of 'em. This game took me about 25 hours to get through. I'm toying with the idea of playing the SNES game Super Metroid, which I've never played, but I'm afraid I'll get sick of the style partway in and quit. And I really don't want to do that. So I may hammer a few other things out before Super Metroid.

Currently playing Spelunky, Last Hope: Pink Bullets, and Evil Twin.

Ugh. This stupid editor just chopped out my last ten minutes of typing. My opinions on these games. I'm so pissed I'm going to have to come back to them in another post. Fucker.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Dark Timesink of Souls


My video game poison of late has been Dark Souls on the Xbox 360.

I've played Space Marine with my kid some... enough to finally get my multiplayer dude up to level 41 (the cap) and unlock more weapon and armor perks. And I've gone through about 30% of the modern update to Splatterhouse, a decidedly mediocre game that reads like it should be tailor-made for me, but is actually kind of a drag. I don't know whether to quit playing it or just see it through because of the investment I already have in it. And I've started on the Chrono Trigger, a classic you-must-have-played-this RPG, that I really DIDN'T play owing to the fact that I seldom play RPGs and didn't own a Super Nintendo when then the game originally released. That's on the Wii Virtual Console.

But Dark Souls is really the current crack du jour. Or has been. I've nearly finished my second playthrough and I think I'm finally giving it a rest. Veteran Dark Souls (or Demon Souls) players know what I'm talking about: this game will own your life.

Not strictly an RPG or really even an action-RPG (by whatever fluid definition that can actually be applied), Dark Souls is probably accurately described as an action game in the third person mode (like Bayonetta or Darksiders) but heavily influenced by RPG mechanics. So technically, if you come to grips really well with the combat system you could 'skill' your way past a lot of the game without paying all that much attention to the RPG aspects like leveling up or tooling up your weapons. It'd be really tedious, because the combat is technical and complex, and if you don't level up or manage your equipment, the fights will drag out to an almost interminable degree. The game already encourages slow and careful play as it is, so players greatly benefit from utilising the RPG aspects as much as possible to gain whatever advantage they can over the game environment and enemies, just so progress continues quickly enough to hold player attention.

There are forty bazillion web entries covering Dark Souls. There's a whole thriving community that goes on and on about just this one game. And I can see why. It is utterly compelling. There's no need for me to really go into game details that thousands of other people have already covered. But there are some caveats to the game I wanted to get into... quite apart from the 'it's so hard' stuff so many others have said. I DID actually have an earlier post on this blog talking about Dark Souls and how it really wasn't so brutal as everyone was making out.

That was before I'd hit my own personal wall in the game. I tried repeatedly to get past it. I had a guidebook. No help. I read stuff online. The enemies acted differently than everyone was saying. So I put the game down for what I'd intended to be, like a week, but turned into months as other games (and life shit) intervened and distracted.

As it turns out, when I finally dug back into the game, my biggest problem was 'skilling' my way up to that point as I'd mentioned earlier in this post.

Dark Souls basically amounts to 'runs' between checkpoints. At each checkpoint (bonfires in the game) you can replenish, repair, whatever. At the cost of most enemies respawning. So to play you really just foray out from a bonfire, exploring and memorising what comes between you and the next rest stop. Every enemy can be dangerous, but they have patterns that can be learned or weaknesses that can be exploited, and what I'd done in the early stages of the game was to use my years of video game playing experience to fight really well using what I had, and upgrading only when it might occur to me to do so, and to work out strategies for defeating those few foes I couldn't overcome in a standup fight. Which is what you are supposed to do. But it isn't the ONLY thing you're supposed to do.

I was getting by, thinking I'm all awesome. Even the bosses up to that point, though difficult and causing me to die a fair number times, could be defeated with some not-too-complex strategy and a bit of luck or timing. Finally, the game put me up against a boss where my characters stats or equipment was a problem. Literally his inability to take a punch. It wasn't that I couldn't figure out what to do, but my character couldn't hold out long enough to do it. Up to that point, I'd been using timing, spacing, the reach of my weapon, and memory to ensure my enemies didn't really lay a glove on me. Even if they did, the damage that got past my armor and shield could be dealt with using healing potions. But now I was facing a boss who was going to hit me, pretty much no matter what. AND hit me so hard I really wouldn't have much opportunity to use healing potions. My guy just wasn't ready for him. I didn't KNOW this at the time, I figured it was just too hard or unfair. BUT. I had every intention of re-approaching it because the whole reason I got Dark Souls in the first place was because I'd understood it to be challenging. I just didn't get back to it very soon.

Upon picking it up again (with the encouragement of an online buddy-- thanks Jason) I discovered you really can't ignore the RPG aspects forever. Going back to that hurdle, I figured I was just somehow missing something. I had done some grinding in RPGs before, the process whereby the player goes over previously conquered areas to amass experience points or gold in an effort to gain levels or items that will boost their character and make a difficult challenge easier. This was an action game seemingly and I just hadn't done any grinding-- or even tried to amass souls (the game's experience points and currency) and level up 'properly' through the progress I HAD made. I'd tried to bulldoze my way through using thumbs on controllers only.

So I walked my dude back toward the beginning as far as I could and tried to be as frugal as possible about gaining and losing souls, and be really attentive towards leveling up and upgrading my weapons. Lo and behold, I was able to weather that troublesome boss's attacks and take him down. Because with some careful accounting/leveling, and paying attention to various types of equipment do, my character was able to weather some hits. Weather them long enough to strike back and kill the bastard.

That might mean the moral of the story would be a take on the old adage to 'read the instructions'. Dark Souls is hard, no shit, but if I'd played the game being as attentive to the numbers aspect of it as I was to the moving and fighting... playing it as it was intended... I'd have been past that hurdle sooner. Afterwards, when I'd cottoned to that fact, no part of the game-- no trap, no boss-- was as difficult or frustrating. The part I was stuck on is considered pretty tough, but I more or less sailed on past the other 'toughest' spots. The game continued to be challenging, but the other cool aspects of the game, the atmosphere, the multiplayer, and the upgrade system became the most compelling parts and still are. All the tools a player needs to make the different enemies in the game manageable are there. You don't even have to be all that 'action-game' skilled.

I give From Software really high marks on this game. Some of the stuff that bothers players and critics doesn't faze me. I'm used to seeing past some rough edges in games to enjoy a unique experience. So when I read people bitching about the framerate bogging down or being invaded by other players too often, I'm not very sympathetic. My biggest complaint about the game is arguably one of its strengths, its opacity. The game is really frickin' stingy about what you're supposed to do. The mysterious areas, and surprise traps and enemies help make this game what it is, and the intense, highly-strung state the game puts you in is like no other game-- on par with the best survival horror titles.

Figuring stuff out IS part of the games fun and challenge, but I feel that should cover narrative and in-game puzzles or strategy. NOT the basic workings of the game. The game is a sort of open world, with one or two hubs and the rest of the areas branching out. You are free to go to many areas and die many times before you figure out an area is one you really aren't equipped to handle yet. But here's the tricky part. How do you distinguish between an area you aren't ready for and one that is just super-challenging but that you CAN get through? You could potentially get pretty far into an area before running up against something you just cannot handle and lose all your accumulated souls in the bargain. Conversely, you could get into an area where you manage to kill the first few enemies, but surviving was such a near thing that you believe anything past that is just not something you're up for. The game already intimidates with a pretty unforgiving experience system, making almost any combat a risk. And the NPC's give very little information, expecially in the early going. Whether you risk going into a new area or hang out and grind known areas to beef yourself up, a lot of time is wasted in trying to work out what to do next. Later in the game this is less of a problem, as a specific NPC outlines your goals and a crucial item invokes a cutscene indicating some paths. But if you don't really pay attention at that point, you'll be just as clueless as you were before. People who take a lot of notes might have an advantage here, but the days of having to do this for RPGs are supposedly past. It is one of the things that kept me from getting into RPGs in the old days!

The other overly-obscure aspect is the handling of magic and equipment and the upgrades involved. In hindsight, it is actually pretty simple and pretty cool, but until you have a handle on it, you can spin round and round wondering why the hell you can't do something that seems bone-obvious you SHOULD be able to do. Again, the NPCs give almost no help, and what little they DO say,  you have to really pay attention to, and make some not-so-obvious deductions from.

I guess From Software figured the community would fill in the blanks, and largely they do. There are at least three full wiki projects centered around Dark Souls. The PvP (player versus player) aspect has all sorts of active forums and tips pages written on it. This is all well and good, but I'd rather have figured it out from in-game tools and not by going asking. Online advice didn't help me get past 'that one boss'. I had to work out what would work for me. And frustrating ast that was, it'd been nice if all of Dark Souls mysteries would've been like that. I mean you COULD work it all out for yourself, but dying over and over just to figure out where to go, or trawling through menu screens to figure out why I can't upgrade my mace just isn't my idea of fun. THOSE aren't the kind of puzzles I want to work out.

Early on I bought the Dark Souls guide. For some complex games I buy guide books so that after I beat a game I can get indications of where to go to find extra items, subquests, complete achievements, whatever. I don't care to get help from them while I'm on my initial playthrough. With Dark Souls though I had to give in. I used the guide for two things: what area to go to next (when it wasn't pretty obvious) and how the equipment and magic system works. The guide is attractive (a black hardbound from Future Press) but not nearly as useful as one would think. On where to go next, it was fine. Helping me finish NPC quests or find hidden items in my second playthrough? Pretty good. So as a map book it was decent. Some of the maps could be clearer but I didn't need a step by step walkthrough.

The book also explains how the magic and equipment system works, but it is more or less scattered through the book, making it painful to get the whole picture. Suffice to say, if you buy the guide, read the first section about basic play, then the beginning of the items section (to understand item attributes), and the very last section, the extras. The extras section actually explains the upgrade path because certain achievements require you to upgrade to the fullest extent, so the text explains what is involved in that. The craziness is that it isn't giving anything away to read that-- you kind of need to know what is expected to do this just to play the game, and THE END of the book is the place it is given. If you don't get a handle on this, you'll spend many a head-scratching moment wondering why the fuck that sword you just made into a +5 just disappeared off your list so you can't make it a +6 even though you have plenty of materials and money. The system is NOT particularly difficult, but is made so because there's no in-game information apart from brief dialogue from blacksmiths or other NPC that whizzes by.

On strategies for beating enemies or bosses (arguably the thing many or most players might actually buy it for) it is terrible. There are hardly any suggestions for combat strategies in the thing that would line up with what I did. And many times the book omits any help at all. What is probably the trickiest non-boss encounter in the game (and I'm agreeing with the legions of players who feel the same way) gets barely a passing mention. It doesn't really matter too much, I figured out my own battles. Even this obstacle didn't hold me up long. But just a word of warning. I can recommend the book as probably 'the nicest' collection of Dark Souls data in one place, but its usefulness lies mainly in its item tables (though somewhat outdated on a few items owing to patches) and its maps. If you're stuck in a place, the book can help you. If you're stuck on an enemy, the book really won't help you. Weirdly the book omits how to perform a parry, an important basic mechanic in combat.

So I'm not proud of it, but I did go to the book for a few things during my initial playthrough. More than once, I found myself entering an area, and not wanting to waste a lot of time finding out if I should be there. I suppose the contrived methods most RPGs use to prevent you from going somewhere ahead of time are less realistic, but now I'm beginning to look at that shit a lot more favorably. There's an area in Dark Souls where a huge gate blocks your way until you reach a certain point, then you see a cutscene of a giant raising the gate. That was an exception to most of the access in Dark Souls, but the way almost every other game operates. A little bit more of THAT would've helped me save face!

This game has also stoked my hitherto flaccid interest in online multiplayer. More about that next time. My fingers are tired now.


I'm a terrible person!
At least I'm terrible at keeping up on this blog!

I've had a number of downturns in my life, particularly the one about joining the masses of unemployed in this country. But I've still been plugging away at nerdery in various forms and so I should be frickin' maintaining this thing.

Not to be too personal... the blog really isn't supposed to go there...  but depression can make neglect-ers of even the best of us.

So here I go updating.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Now With Joystick Action

It has take some months for me to really be able to understand, let alone enjoy 'iOS gaming', the games designed for Apple's various iDevices. My kids (naturally) had no problem at all. They've been Temple Running, Doodle Jumping, and Jetpack Joyriding pretty much since they got their Touch iPods last summer, and long before I had any experience with anything beyond my trusty/crusty click-wheel ipod (which I still use for music). But touchscreens and I have a really hellish history, so I held out as long as I could.

Future posts will include iOS game coverage to a degree, but my viewpoint will definitely be from the old dog learning new tricks angle... that is, a controller-user trying to get some enjoyment out of all the tapping, swiping and flicking you have to do to get anywhere with touchscreen gaming. Or ways around this.

Case in point, and serious nerd-gasm. My iCade.

This is kinda jumping ahead to more recent times... I've bought a lot of iOS games before getting this thing... but the iCade is probably what I'm most excited about. And wouldn't you know it? It turns my newfangled touchscreen based device into an old-fashioned controller-, uh, 'controlled' mini arcade cabinet. Yes, I have wasted little time literally turning back cutting edge tech and reducing it to the same controls used on my favorite games from the 80s and 90s.

But even more uber-nerdy: I ripped the stock stick and buttons out and replaced them all with Sanwa parts. To be honest, the default hardware was okay, but really unbelievably noisy. And the buttons had a really deep push range to them. I'd modified sticks on my console games to Seimitsu parts, but I went Sanwa (the go-to buttons for most fighting games) this time just to see how they were different.

I really like 'em. Not better than the Seimitsu parts but definitely an improvement over what shipped. My kids thought my choice in button colors was crazy when I ordered 'em, but now that they are installed I win the friggin' tasteful mod competition.
The iCade really isn't compatible with that many games available in the Apple store. And the freebie Atari package that you can download with the iCade is kinda crap. Fortunately there is an awesome option available that more than justifies the cost of the iCade and any mods I might've done. An iOS version of Mame (MultiArcadeMachineEmulator).

I never really dug Mame all that much in the past. Mame is largely grounded in the PC, and I've always thumbed my nose at PC gaming because of all the hassle with the tech and the catchup you had to do if you wanted to play the latest games as intended. Mame didn't push PC graphics technology but it had its own set of rules, updates, versions, workarounds blah blah blah. I like consoles because I just want to put the damn game in and go. No fucking around.

But Mame is also controversial. You have to download game images (ROMs) of games that frequently still have a copyright owner... and you aren't paying them for it.

To quickly push past my personal view on whether Mame is piracy or not (because that is mostly beside the point of this post), my feeling is that I'm willing to download and play a ROM for any arcade game that doesn't exist for a console... ie, a viable platform for most gamers (not many people can and do afford a JAMMA setup not to mention buying a PCB for each game). If a company releases a version of the arcade game for a console I am more than happy to buy it. So yes, that IS Truxton II, a pretty rare Toaplan game, showing on the screen of those pics. If someone were to somehow manage to procure rights to publish Toaplan's games I'd be the first in line to shell out for those official releases. In the scheme of things, current video game publishers are not losing money from me because I'm using Mame instead of their products.  Mame (and the game ROMs) is free so that isn't money going towards Mame that could be going to legit game releases either. I follow this model with DVDs too. I'll buy a 'fansub', but happily get the legit one as soon as it becomes available. I can't think of a time I've failed to this. I used to have an all fansub Godzilla film collection, but since four different companies have made USA releases of Japanese Godzilla films, there are only two fansubs left Godzilla vs Megalon, and Godzilla vs Biollante. If the suits will let these out officially, they'll get my money

So the version of Mame I currently have loaded on my iOS device supports a library of almost 2300 games. Yep. 2300 games. Instant justification for an iCade, since compatibility for the thing was evidently important to the iMame4all developers. The jailbroken version also supports wiimotes, but I've found since getting the iCade the wiimote with a Classic Controller is best used for dual-stick games like Smash TV or Robotron 2084.

Of course of that 2300 games a lot are crap. Or clones. Or boring. Or a product of their time and unplayable by today's standards. Or require a one-off controller that came on the arcade cabinet, like a trackball or dial. Also every iteration of Mame had ROMs in their libraries that the guys working on Mame never got around to making work before a new version of Mame came out. So about 10% of the games don't work or have issues that cripple them running. But at the end of it, if I only include games that run, that I like, or that I've always wanted to try that still lists out at hundreds and hundreds of titles. I couldn't give them each serious attention of I was awake 24 hours a day. And at the time of this writing a followup version of Mame for iOS is in beta with an even bigger library. I can barely wrap my head around all the games I've gotten already.

And talk about an awesome way for my kids to discover so may of the classic games and genres from my formative video game years AND the golden age of the arcades in the late 80s and early 90s! They already have favaorites. And they can see where a lot of the titles they play on Xbox 360 or their iPods got their start.