Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thank You Mario

My son finished up Super Mario Galaxy two days ago in anticipation of getting the sequel (he hopes) soon.
The week he's spent working on this has been a breath of fresh air after the months of relentless first person shooter action from his corner.

My son is eleven. So I have not been all that willing to allow him to just dive into a genre where 'the art' typically involves the aesthetics of headshots and the ragdoll physics of bodies subjected to rocket fire. Years ago, when he FIRST started showing an interest in FPS games it was through school chums and their talking up anything with 'Halo' in the name. Of course. At that age those boys weren't particularly good at it, and I don't think even completing the campaign games, let alone going online multiplayer, was something they worked at. They just liked to spend an hour here or there blowing shit up on Dad's cool game. All the damn toys in the store were not helping.

My son didn't get to play Halo. I didn't insist on squeaky clean games and nothing else for him, but I had enough experience in FPS games (they are a middling video game love for me) to know ultraviolence was the norm not the exception. Eventually, after some investigation, I settled on letting him be introduced to the genre with an game that emphasized exploration as much as shootin' stuff. That the violence is all against non-human (non-red blooded) foes, helped a little. He got Metroid Prime: Corruption.

Yeah, I know. Kind of complex for a grade schooler. But I got him a guide and hoped that the puzzle and exploration stuff would be something we could solve together. My son didn't really go for it. He thought the game was cool (especially the shooting), but having to figure out how and where to go next just proved overwhelming. He wanted something more straightforward. And honestly I couldn't blame him.

Enter Fire Warrior on the PS2. This is a somewhat-maligned shooter, usually put down as being simplistic or having murky visuals. I've always had a soft spot for it because of my history with GW properties. I liked the game a lot when I played through it, but that's because its immersion level (for me) overcame its faults. Subject matter-wise it doesn't get much bloodier and grim than 40K, but this being a PS2 game the lack of fidelity (next to Halo) kind of abstracted the violence a little. More importantly though was the fact that my son grew up around this imagery. When he was very little he would traipse through offices with giant posters of Warhammer or 40K battles or run through a warehouse filled with bin after bin of orc, elf, and space marine figures. As he's gotten older and has shown an interest in the GW tabletop games, he already has  understanding of the backdrop which has come through the decidedly less violent activities of painting and modelling. And the protagonist for Fire Warrior is a Tau. Probably chosen by the developer because the Tau race is probably the only one in 40K that comes close to current sensibilities. They are essentially good guys in a universe where the best you can expect from any other army would be 'uncaring' with most ranging from fascist to psychotic... again, by modern moral standards. Since my son likes to be the good guy, his chosen race for his 40K army is the Tau, so a game starring a Tau character would seem to be fate.

Right or wrong, justifiable or not, he got into FPS games through a weak link in Dad's armor. Although the game was difficult for him, he managed to get through about 75% with the occasional help from me on some bosses.

After that, he's been allowed to play Halo. I used Fire Warrior as a sort of test to see how a game that violent might affect his behavior in general. While he did play the character in live games with his sister or friends, no untoward aggression seemed manifest. Nothing apart from typical stuff boys do anyway. He also didn't appear to be desensitised to real life violence. It was only ONE game, but as a concerned parent you frequently look too hard for behavioral weirdness anyway.

He tackled the goshdamn Halo games one after the other. Almost to the exclusion of all other game playing. Because he would have the occasional restriction from games and other delays, this monotony dragged on for quite some time, and still pops up occasionally even now, as he gets reminded that Halo: Reach is a few months away. So in spite of our lack of interest, the rest of the family now know all the Covenant troop types on sight, and can hum the complete Halo theme from memory. And using his newly-honed talents he went back and completed the last 25% of Fire Warrior.

But Super Mario Galaxy. A wildly different game and one that I am extremely gratified my son still finds fun. Compulsively playable, in fact. A week ago, he said 'I don't know why I waited so long to get back to this!'. The game has the dizzying array of collectible items, opponents and levels. But it also entertained him without one drop of blood (alien or otherwise) shed. And he was just as wowed and cowed by the obstacles and bosses as anything Halo threw at him. Watching the ending, he told me he was really sorry the game was over, but he didn't get all the stars so he is still pushing at the unfinished areas.

I really don't have an excuse for not playing this game myself. I watch him do it... and my daughter is giving it a go... and I sort of hover over starting up a file for myself. I have never been into Mario games in any form. I can appreciate their quality and the milestones that some of the games represent. I played Mario's arcade games before there really was much of a home scene, but after I got a NES the various Mario Worlds just seemed like so much WORK. I'm not much of a find-all-the-hidden-shit guy. Never have been. I took a lot better to Sonic when he came along, but we all know how he's turned out (fingers crossed for Sonic 4 to be a-okay). Now my excuse is to just look at this my huge backlog and say I don't need to dig into another franchise just yet. Let's ignore the fact I'm still buying more games... at least those are genres or IPs I've been into for a long time.

My kid's being too young to handle FPS violence may also have been too young to appreciate SMG. So I should probably grow up myself and just play the damn thing.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Grim Shit

So I have a number of different genres represented in my NetFlix queue, but the company seems to think I hew to nothing but the ultraviolent in those genres. In short order they've sent me:

Burn After Reading
Red Cliff
Violent Cop
Mother of Tears
The Stendahl Syndrome
Wolf Creek
and Them (the French horror film, not the American big ant movie from the 50s)

I mean, I know I like edgy stuff, but gee whiz...

There has been a few films here and there that were not as violent as the list above. But I find it interesting that the quickest availability overall was on some of the most obscure and most violent films in their catalog. the list above includes a John Woo import film, a couple of Argento movies, a couple of Takeshi Kitano gangster movies, two examples of the 'New French Extreme' cinema, and one of the bleakest 'torture porn' films made.

I'm a case study for violent films NOT leading to violent behavior.

I wonder if I'll turn violent when the dramas and family films finally start showing up.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fly The Friendly Skies of Unit--, uh, Sega

Two games played recently:

Panzer Dragoon Orta for the Xbox. This game frickin’ rocks. I loved all three PD games on the Saturn. Sega’s Team Andromeda had created this amazing alien world, enthralling yet almost totally unlike ours. As a lot of players probably know the first two games are rail shooters and the third installment is an RPG. These games were done so well that they corralled a lot of players that were not fans of those genres into playing and enjoying them.

Flash forward to 2002. The PD series has a new game released for the Xbox, Panzer Dragoon Orta. If there were one game on that system that could’ve enticed me to buy it, this was the game. Alas, I was too busy spending money on games for my PS2, and buying stuff for my consoles even older. When I eventually bought an Xbox 360, Orta was one of the first things I investigated being able to play.

There were complications, not least of which was my having to buy a vastly more expensive Japanese copy to run on my JPN Xbox 360. But it was well worth it.

I’ve gone through the game completely once. Averaged a B grade across the ten levels. The difficulty is, if my memory is correct, similar to the earlier PD games, but clearing the game is a lot easier owing to it saving your progress. There are a lot of (skippable) cutscenes, but I find the PD world so interesting that I let them roll. The additional mechanics include a boost/brake element that took some getting used to. It feels clumsy at first, but the game never requires really split second timing with it until near the end. This chapter also gives you three dragon types that you can switch between on the fly, all upgradeable as per your dragon in PD Saga (Azel).

The graphics and music are phenomenal. Even considering the Xbox isn’t a current-gen console, these design elements are still very impressive. Definitely a ‘wow’ game.

If you liked the old PD games, getting this is a no-brainer. It is like the Saturn games but slicker looking and with a couple of easily-handled complications. Interestingly, the original Panzer Dragoon opens up on completion of the game, but it doesn’t play nearly as well as the one on an actual Sega Saturn disc.

Skies of Arcadia for the Sega Dreamcast. I don’t play RPGs all that much, but this is one I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time… I got it when it was a current retail title.

Skies is an old-fashioned game. Its turn-based combat, simple color magic system, and linear plot would all be considered quaint now. At the time it was thought pretty amazing for its graphics and the ship combat system. Having delayed all this time actually getting around to playing it, that quaintness is actually kind of a draw. Besides the obvious retro aspect, the game is just very positive. Vyse and crew are very well designed and charming. Despite the blocky visuals, the characters are more expressive than most any ‘more realistic’ game you’d buy new today. The music is good too, but not spectacular considering all the epic scores spanning all the RPGs one hears now.

Despite the occasional grim dialogue from the villains, the can-do attitude of the villains and the bright, decidedly non-gritty environments just makes a great change of pace from the constant angst permeating video games. I like me some angst too, but this game reminds me when the fun was the thing, not the drama.

Skies isn’t without drawbacks. Famous for the frequency of its random encounters, this is a real pain in a game that emphasizes exploration. It is fun to sail about the world trying to find cool locations and landmarks, but you won’t even have time to get into an exploratory segment before you’re dropped into yet another fight. Happens in the ships and happens on foot in the dungeons. While this hasn’t killed the game for me, as it has some players, it definitely has had me sighing resignedly more than once. I understand there is an item that’ll reduce random encounters while ship-board, but I don’t have that wonderful piece of kit yet.

I’m also not loving the ship combat. This is one of the big draws for the game in reviews, and while it is innovative, and on the surface interesting, the battles are too drawn out considering the so-so level of excitement, for me at any rate. It also doesn’t help that I suck at the ship battles. I don’t out-and-out lose most of ‘em, but I usually take way longer and incur a lot more damage than I probably should. I just can’t really get the hang of the process. Probably for the same reason I can’t ‘get’ stupid Bejeweled 2.

I can see the appeal of the ship battles. The game does enough things well to keep these or the random battles from making me give up. That barely sounds like an endorsement, but the good things are REALLY good things. I look at my stack of games to get to playing and while they will probably have lots of moments to enjoy, not many look to actually convey a positive, uplifting outlook. Enh, some of this has to do with the class of game I run with. If I was more into Pokemon or Kirby, I wouldn’t think this was so unusual. See the Super Mario Galaxy games for a similar upbeat outlook, but SMG games aren’t RPGs with swords and killing!

Anyway, for an old-fashioned RPG experience WITH swords and killing, Skies of Arcadia is a fun time. This looks to run about 50 hours and I think I’m a little less than one-third into it.

(image kyped from HG101)

Monday, May 17, 2010


Read last night that Ronnie James Dio finally succumbed to his bout with stomach cancer.

What is this Dead Metal Guy Season?

Cripes, I better watch what I eat, and not get on any airplanes!

Never the big Dio fan, though I appreciated his talent. In later years particularly, he seemed like a decent guy from interviews and commentary. The fact that Heaven & Hell may be the best Sabbath album and it isn’t Ozzy’s, it’s his… might be the greatest testament to the guy.

RIP Ronnie James.

Note: You can include Brett Michaels near brush with death as someone ALMOST succumbing to Dead Metal Guy Season... but you'd have a hard time convincing me to associate 'metal' with him.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again

Following on from the Video Game Journalism entry recently. Strictly from a USA standpoint. If you live in another country, your mileage may vary:

I can’t say there are no bright spots in the world of game reportage. There are a lot of internet voices out there that aren’t feeding at the teat of the game companies. Various bloggers (links to a couple in my sidebar, and they source others), and a few sites here and there. And quite a few game sites I find fun or useful but they aren’t in the business of journalism or don’t pretend to be. The internet is a weird place though, as anyone with social experience in it can tell you. If you want to get good information you have to be discerning and that isn’t always easy. Also, as in any other fandom or subculture, the angry voices often tend to be the loudest. Angry at a game, angry at another gamer, angry at the companies... forums and blogs are filled with seemingly apoplectic players. I say 'seemingly' because you don’t really know how affected any of this anger might be. The anonymity and instant ‘publishing’ of the internet tempts users with the ability to go hog-wild with hyperbole, hysteria and ad hominem attacks.

The reality is that most gamers and most opinion… on the games themselves at any rate… don’t fall quite so far to the ends of a scale. Less emotional opinions aren't 'good television' but also the people that hold them aren't as motivated to vomit them out.

One of the things I like about print magazines, aside from the nostalgia (Egon: ‘print is dead’), is that the writing and reporting are usually more considered than a lot of the shoot-your-mouth-off noise on the web. Magazines continue to require more ability than what belongs to any old schlub who can string two words together. And despite the admonition ‘put it online, it’s public forever’ there still seems to be more legitimacy and permanence in print. There’s no emoticons in periodicals, and no opportunity for quick re-edits or apologies. Writing for a magazine, you need to mean what you say and be prepared to back it up. It isn’t like you can’t retract or correct anything, but it’ll be a month in most cases before you can fix it... so pretty much damage done by that point.

Magazines are also less caught up in the dubious business of breaking a gaming story. Being first with an important story has been a priority for journalistic outlets since forever. But in the gaming industry, there is so much money changing hands, so many favors done and withheld, and so much crosstalk on the internet, that up-to-the-minute sites for video games don’t resemble news outlets so much as they do gossip rags. Reading Kotaku and 1up is like standing in the grocery line with the National Enquirer in hand. With similar amounts of credibility. Breaking news ‘journalists’ are falling all over themselves seeing who can give the best blowjob to Sony or Capcom reps in exchange for that one screenshot or video that other sites won’t have for twelve extra hours. Paper periodicals don’t really have to deal with this. They are never going to be as late-breaking as internet sources. So. Their exclusives and attractions need to be of a different order. A viewpoint or an interview that no one else has.

Whatever I think the advantages of magazines, for video gaming there seem to be precious few that I actually like. The go-to publications for a lot of players are the UK-based monthlies, Edge, GamesTM, and RetroGamer. These mags are considerably denser and larger than almost any comparable American periodical (RetroGamer is thinner, but larger by width and height) and frequently use sidebars and boxouts to cram additional information onto each page. They are very slickly produced, and while I wouldn’t say visually interesting most of the time, they are clear and professional-looking, with Edge and GamesTM going more high-end, and RetroGamer more folksy, as suits their subject matter.

While I should love these magazines, and I acknowledge they do some things better than anyone else, they have a few glaring problems.

RetroGamer’s issues are the simplest; being largely about older games, and presumably an older audience, they have a laid back, jovial atmosphere. They aren’t caught up in the latest corporate bullshit from the big three console providers, and they aren’t all rabid about release dates, polygons per second, or the efficacy of motion controllers. They are there for the fun. They seem to have a good time doing what they do, and they get very humorous and jokey (in a decidedly British way) without descending too far into the sophomoric basement. So if one is into past-gen consoles (like I am) what’s not to like? In the case of RetroGamer, one of their strengths is also, for me, the big weakness. The British-ness of it all. These guys spend a HUGE amount of time, space, and energy writing about various UK-based computers that mean less-than-nothing to me. They already lose my attention when they have articles with so much verbiage about Amiga, and Atari ST computers. Blech. But when you factor in Amstrad, Spectrum, and BBC Micro machines too? Double-triple blech. Sometimes it seems about 25% of the page count is even remotely interesting. In my desperation to glean something out of this mag I now know way more about the fucking ‘Speccie’ than I ever wanted to.

I’m not blaming the editors. This is a UK mag written to UK readers. So it is natural that they are skewing to what they played as they grew up and what their core readership can identify with. But it makes RetroGamer less valuable or enjoyable to ME, an American reader who is also partial to older systems... but largely with an interest in consoles and not computers.

Edge and GamesTM are a different kettle of fish. These are well-written, erudite (for video game writing especially), and noticeably less wacky-funny. What humor there is, tends to be drier than RetroGamer for the most part. But these magazines are also a lot less FUN.

I know it is part of the British nature to be aloof and cynical. Looking down their noses and being sarcastic is an English given, and for the most part I enjoy it, maybe because my ethnicity is largely English. But video games are supposed to be about having a good time, and these magazines, especially Edge, read like the editors have long since given up on anything good coming out of the video game industry.

Which is bullshit of course. We may not like Sony or Microsoft. We may be generally disenchanted with Sega or Konami. But only Helen Keller could say there’s nothing exciting or fun available in video game land.

ECM at Waxing Erratic calls Edge ‘schizophrenic’. That’s probably apt. Edge’s policy seems to be MOSTLY about being less cynical when previewing a game, quite cynical when demoing a game, and bitterly cynical when reviewing a game. Their reviews are notoriously strict. I’m not sure whether that’s because they really don’t enjoy what they do, or if they’re caught up in some holier-than-thou vortex of elitism. GamesTM is only marginally better. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Edge can consider itself one well-flattered bitter English rag.

I think one of the standout moments illustrating this repellent attitude was in last month’s Edge in a demo Platinum Games and Sega held for the upcoming game Vanquish. Personally, I really like what Platinum did with Bayonetta. Incredibly, so did Edge magazine, giving the game high marks when they reviewed it months ago. Something of a miracle, that. So, based on Bayonetta, and things I like about other games the Platinum staff were involved in (Madworld and Okami), I'd think Platinum deserves the benefit of the doubt on whether Vanquish will be any good. I’m not saying to just assume it’ll revolutionize action games, but I’d give producer Kamiya my open mind at the demo.

Reading the article, you’d think Kamiya was some greenhorn newbie who talked a lot of PR lies out his ass. I mean the quotes from him are fine. He comes off confident, but hopeful. It’s the comments from the ‘journalist’ writing it that take the cake. There were so many ‘yeah, right’ and ‘he’ll never back that up’ moments I thought I was reading the words of some jaded punk in the back of the room talking to his bitter fat friend. It was incredibly disrespectful. And from a mag that ACCEPTED an invitation and the perks that went with attending this demo. The least you could do was be somewhat gracious to the host. And the thing that is REALLY schizophrenic, is the writer came away from the demo anticipating the game. He made a point of saying after seeing the game in motion, with one of the testers showing how it worked, that it had similar fluid combat ideas to Bayonetta and could be a real success. What the fuck? If the game demo changed your mind for the better, why the hell would you leave in the ‘Kamiya is a bullshitter’ comments in the former part of the article. At least contextualize the comments like ‘well, I WAS thinking he was bullshitting’. The whole thing comes off as GRUDGINGLY accepting that Vanquish could be really good. What kind of editor, in a supposedly fun industry, is fucking disappointed that a game developer is on a roll and likely to release another good game! These guys might run out of shitty things to talk about?

The whole goshdamn magazine is like that basically. Every time I read one I’m like, ‘Quit fuckers! If you can never be happy, then fucking quit!’. Of course, why the hell am I still buying the damn things, eh? I will never understand people in fandom circles (and they are in EVERY fandom) who seem to get so much more enjoyment out of their perceptions of what is wrong, then the obvious conclusions about what is right. I realize that defining fun is variable and elusive. Everyone’s enjoyment is different. But being bitter and cynical about video games ALL THE TIME is pointless and stupid. Find another hobby. I read whiners and bitchers all the time (hello Shmups!) but I expect better from the so-called journalists, especially the ones in print. I mean they got into writing about games because they loved them, right? Right? And the UK mags have all the production values and resources to be better.

Maybe that’s the draw. A very British draw. I know American readers in general find the UK rating scales for game reviews to be harsh. I don’t think it is because American gamers are just more accepting of crap, though I'll argue that their tastes could be very narrow. The UK editors just seem to take a lot of pleasure in being the wine snobs of the gaming world or something. Again, Edge and GamesTM are writing for the UK, so if that’s what the UK readership want, then I guess those mags are giving it to them.

Ultimately, the UK magazines are aware of a readership abroad. A reader base potentially much larger than their domestic one. They are also aware of criticism the foreign readers have. In true British tradition they just don’t care. Any more than Britain cared to change wholly over to the metric system or adopt the euro. In a way, that’s good I suppose. They do what the do and they are sticking to it. Ultimately though, there’s a bigger world out there. Many Japanese game developers have felt the Japanese market is limited, stagnant, and out of touch. They are looking to what tastes overseas dictate so that they can reach for a success bigger than what their island nation can supply. If the two magazines re-launched here, and discussed below, can effectively cover a need for American readers (or rather ME) that has been neglected by our own periodicals, will Edge and the others do anything to stay relevant to the biggest video game nation on the planet? I probably won't even care.

With the new versions of GameFan and EGM on the stands, American readers have some new, uh, old choices for video game monthlies. I have recently bought and read the first issues of both.

GameFan used to be my favorite video game magazine. As with a lot of readers it was the primary inspiration for me to start buying import games. Imports probably represent close to half (if not more) of my video game library. The magazine was so exuberant, so passionate, and looked like nothing else on the newsstand. It had its faults but I think they were easily overcome by strengths. And most importantly, the taste of the editors (cool-ass cartoon editors) seemed to pretty well correspond with mine. In those days the influence of swag was MUCH less involved so you got (what seemed to be) honest reviews and overviews. They had more than one opinion on their review page... sometimes varying pretty widely and giving each other shit for about it too! And however stressful putting a magazine out under their circumstances actually was, the product itself was enthusiastic and almost as much fun as video games themselves were. Publisher Dave Halverson has had a number of magazine ventures afterwards but GameFan is unanimously considered the high point of his career and a lot of what made it great may not be able to duplicated in today’s climate.

Not that Dave isn’t going to try. The new version is out in oversized height and width, but a bit on the thin side. Reminds me of RetroGamer in some ways. The magazine actually flips and has a sister mag, MovieFan, on the back. At this time… with this first issue anyway… the cinema ‘half’ looks like an afterthought. It barely has anything. Two full-size interviews (and these are okay), a tiny one-page Q&A, and then a LOT of fluffery about upcoming movies and a vampire retrospective that’s about as satisfying as a mouthful of pubic hair.

The GameFan half is better. It hasn’t quite found its legs yet, but there is potential. They have a great, in my opinion, look to the mag, and the layouts cram a bit more in so that the magazines thin-ness is compensated. No American game mag can match the Brits for sheer volume. The number of reviews was quite high actually, though they’ve cut the reviewers numbers down to two per game compared to the old days. A high proportion of articles was written by Dave himself and he’s got a rep for slobbering profusely for the games he likes. That isn’t really my cup of tea, but I think it probably beats being a cynical a-hole all the time. The enthusiasm carries over into coverage of games that might not get much attention at all in other publications. Always a strong point in Halverson’s mags, a reader can expect a lot of coverage of niche, old school, and retro-styled titles.

Seeing as how this is only the first issue, if I had to make a gripe about it I’d probably say that it skews a little too far the other way from the UK mags cynicism. Being positive and enthusiastic is one thing. Even being positive in the face of everyone else hating I can understand on occasion, as long as you can back it up. If you feel others have not given a game a fair shake because of ‘x’, and it’s a reasoned ‘x’ then you can avoid looking bought off. I don’t feel Genki racing games EVER get a fair shake in the American press so I totally understand being the nail that sticks up. The first issue of this incarnation of GameFan is a little suspiciously positive. I think there are two things that could mitigate this for me, and time will tell if this works out.

One, Dave and company may just only ever review games that will get a positive review. In that way, they’ll never piss off a developer or publisher, and they’ll never be literally dishonest. They’d be assuming their readership will go elsewhere for opinions on games they don’t cover… and maybe you COULD infer that if it isn’t reviewed that’s tatamount to game not getting a good rating. They did have one badly rated game in the mag, but it is so universally panned that it was a pretty safe one to include. I actually know of a lifestyle magazine that reviews music this way. They have page after page of capsule music reviews each done by an editor specializing in that album’s genre. But they never include something that would get less than three stars. If it isn’t in there they expect you to conclude no editor liked it very well. Actually if this is the case, it’d be great if Dave just came right out and said that. Kind of defeats the purpose of having a numeric rating but it wouldn’t kill my enjoyment of the magazine.

Two, I don’t think GameFan is going to be positioned as game ‘journalism’ so much as just game ‘writing’. I think it is just going to be a vehicle for enthusiasm and nerdiness and not try to really break news or dig into the seedy bullshit of the industry. Some might say that makes it little better than advertising or sort of a house organ (for ALL the companies), but I still think stuff I would want to know could come out of interviews or on-site visits working under that editorial policy. Not INdependent so much as ALLdependent.

The writing in general could use some stiff work in the editing and proofreading end of thing There are some really distracting errors… maybe that’s a function of everything just getting started… but ancient days GameFan suffered the same thing. The writing style, while varying from editor to editor, tends to a good balance of literate and humorous. There isn’t a reliance on in-jokes and otaku references, but the writers don’t shy away from admitting they like anime boobies either.

I’m pretty sure GameFan wants to be an antidote to two things. Cynicism and too much focus on big mainstream titles. I’d say trying too hard on the former and pretty good grades on the latter. It may have a hard time cleaning all the cumstains out of its dress like the other sources, but if it isn’t going to call itself ‘news’ that's okay. I’ll say this. There are not a lot of ads in GameFan. And if the ones that are in there are for games that predictably get rave reviews they certainly are the type of games Halverson is known to be bonkers for anyway. As I said, GameFan may just be lining up its articles so that it CAN’T get on anyone’s bad side.

EGM was my second favorite video game magazine. They also had a ‘review crew’ and seemed to tell it like it is. The were much less ‘fannish’ but also catered more to the mainstream than GameFan did. I actually fell out of touch with EGM because I just got bored with it. I can’t remember exactly when this was, but it might have been around when GameFan bit the dust. I know I never did like other magazines of that time at all. I found EGM to be informative, but I think the lack of coverage for the type of games I liked probably just made me run out of gas.

New EGM is back under its old publisher Steve Harris, and is also a pretty good looking magazine, if a little bland. It also is a bit on the thin side (compared to the phone book that is Edge), but some EGM is better than no EGM, and these guys look like they expect visits to their website to add to the experience.

This magazine is edited and written (for the most part) more ‘professionally’ than GameFan. What I mean by that is less spelling and grammar errors, of course, but the editors also come off as having more experience in the industry… which they do. EGM is also professing to be literal journalism. Which DOES seem to be the case. You don’t hire Dan Hsu because you want to be the darling of the gaming world. The print mag will not be up-to-the-minute on video game corporate scandals… I assume the site will be… but a number of the articles were critical (without being super-hostile) of various aspects of the industry including journalists themselves. So if this is what we can expect from Harris' idea of game journalism, it could be fine. I thought they referenced Kotaku and a few other places I find dubious too much, but at the same time they were pretty critical of that shit too.

EGM has a pretty good balance in tone. For every criticism there was at least as much enthusiasm. They didn’t review very many games, but the reviews seemed reasonable and independent. The previews and interviews were positive and informative. I think the amount of material is kind of skimpy. There is a lot of exciting stuff coming out soon that just flat isn’t mentioned. If the website is necessary to get a full picture of game reviews and previews that kind of sucks. I’d login for industry news, but I don’t think you should HAVE to, especially since full access to the site costs money. It’s a bit like the bitching about DLC that EGM is arguing about IN THIS VERY ISSUE. Pots and kettles guys, pots and kettles. But we’ll see. As time goes on, if they can get more into the mag, I’ll be happier.

There’s some likable humor and sarcasm in there, the letters page and the Seanbaby-written crap games section particularly. But here’s a thing that drove me nuts, and it was kind of surprising: the ‘informal’ writing style in some of the articles and specifically the giant Super Street Fighter IV section. It was terrible. I have never been jerked out of a read by so many forehead-slapping references and shitty asides in my life. I think they were trying to channel the teenager that must have been playing Super Street Fighter II back in the day, but I’d rather endure a cheese grater to the testicles then spend any more time talking to that teenager. I would’ve fucking punched that guy dead and dragged his body out to the bin behind the Golf ‘n’ Stuff where I used to play fighting games.

EGM probably won’t have the same slobber problem that GameFan is going to have to overcome. But EGM isn’t going to cover Cave or Vanillaware the way GameFan is either.

It’s early days yet for these two. It would be AWESOME to have game mags worth buying again. Even if they aren’t both super-ballsy. I used to buy two major game magazines regularly—these exact two. And one fulfilled the enthusiasm need, and the other the black & white information need. Which APPEARS to be where these two are headed. In those days I actually saved and re-read old issues. I can’t say that about the British mags I buy now. And just like I’m not a single console fantard, I don’t need to be a single magazine (or site or blog)-tard either.

Print is dead. Long live print.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


After a real push over the last weekend, and some concetrated effort last night, I finally finished TXRD2 to completion.

And in 'game that must go on forever' fashion, it drew out even the last few rival encounters for maximum drama... or exhaustion.

Yesterday there was the boss of the final area to take down, then the ultimate boss of each 'villain team'. THEN the former champ of old (who is foreshadowed in cutscenes) comes out. He's the final boss.

Then you get the final ending screens. I say 'final' because Genki racers usually have ending screens and credit rolls at each major juncture in their games. But wait.

The TRUE LAST BOSS challenges you at the very first track you started the game in. He has a weird almost science fiction car.

After he is down, some upstart team challenges you at one of the winter tracks. So you have to now defend your crown against a team of new upstarts, sort of simulating what things will be like for your avatar now that you are the new king.

Jiminy Christmas, that's a lot of game!

For all my blather about this game being too big, it was very exciting and emotional getting down to the end. My son was on the edge of his seat for much of it. And there was a lot of high-fiving when it was over. I can't say I'm actually SORRY it's over-- but it will be strange not putting any more time in on this. Okay, maybe I'm a little sorry it's over.

And the game was really good.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Video Game *cough* Journalism

Pardon the recent spate of negative essays. I'll try to get all this out of my system soon.

Here's a conundrum. How do you 'tell it like it is' in an industry where the guys you report on supply your advertising dollars?

Well, if you're reporting on cinema you don't rely solely on running movie ads (Premiere). Or you come out on a less frequent schedule to reduce costs or keep the distribution ambitions for your magazine modest (Video Watchdog). A lot of movie magazines are total ass-kissing fests but they don't try to pretend that they aren't (Starlog, any franchise-specific authorised poster magazine). They don't profess to be journalism. If you see film mags with REAL reviews in them than they aren't beholden to the studios. It isn't that there are NO perks, but generally you can't bribe Roger Ebert, Pete Travers, or any of the reviewers at Fangoria. It doesn't hurt that film reviews are stretched across all sorts of outlets including general lifestyle publications and newspapers.

Music magazines, at least the ones I read, do rely on advertising from the objects of their reportage. Yet somehow they maintain their impartiality. I'm not saying a reader can agree with all views and reviews... they are opinions after all... but you can tell (particularly with a mag like Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles) that the deal is: 'We run your ads but we're going to call it as we see it'. And if that means a record company pulls its ads, so be it. Plenty more where that guy came from. I can even remember a specific example of that... a space of time where John Schaeffer of Iced Earth got into a dispute with BWBK over some article and stopped all cooperation. And really, the music publishers HAVE to advertise somewhere. The framework for information outlets to be critical already exists and there is nowhere else for them to go.

What the fuck game industry? You want so much to be considered legit in similar ways to the movie industry (despite Hollywood's own set of hypocrisies) and yet there isn't a standard by which watchmen are enshrined inviolate. The major mags and sites can barely get enough superlatives out on their keyboards because their hands are too busy ball-tickling while they fellate the game companies. How did we, the gamers, let it get to this state? We (well some of us) want to be taken so seriously as art but we just let legitimate criticism and commentary (necessary in the arts) br spoken only in a few corners of the internet.

Y'know, perks and swag doled out by manufacturers DOES have a place in an industry. AT THE RETAIL LEVEL. As a reward for sellers who sell the products. Or as incentive to push a new/future product. Sellers don't have an obligation to be unbiased. It might help them with their customers if they have legitimate experience-based reasons why they prefer a product. That inspires consumer confidence, but they can reasonably push anything they want. Caveat Emptor buyer. Game magazines and websites, despite the advertising ARE NOT THE SELLERS. Top sellers at fucking Gamestop should be the ones getting free shit on Capcom's nickel not Gamepro's magazine editors.

In other endeavors we call that corruption or bribery. I love the posts on Kotaku and IGN where they talk about the latest package arriving from Konami with all the cool Metal Gear stuff in it or whatever. I don't blame the game companies for doing this actually. If you'd found that sending out swag or threatening to pull advertising got you what you wanted, I can see pursuing those courses. They will pursue any legal means (and a few illegal or unethical) they can to maximise profits. Especially the listed (publically held) ones. But if you are supposed to report on the industry or review their products you're not supposed to be presenting your willing ass to them. Film, print/literature, and television media don't do this, as a rule. Journalism is supposed to be above it.

You can find inependent, uninfluenced voices if you look, but most hi-profile video game information outlets are hopelessly corrupt or are house organs/sanctions like Nintendo Power or Official Xbox Magazine. For the so-called hardcore gamer (whether you identify yourself that way or not, you know who you are) it is easy to find writers voicing their opinions in unvarnished colors on all gaming topics imaginable, including the topic of... yep... video game journalism. But how many hits do these guys get compared to the number seen at Kotaku or IGN? How much exposure and money does Gamespite Quarterly get compared to Gamepro?

A large part of the problem is the masses. The herd.

The more experienced supposedly-'levelheaded' commentators maintain that harcore gamers are a whiny, spoiled lot who are never happy with anything and really shouldn't be responsible for steering the industry. Conversely, the non-hardcore vote with their wallets for the same genres and franchises over and over again. And seem completely indifferent to breaking out of their rut. So we run into this sort of 'I want something new and different' from all the loudmouths, but there aren't enough loudmouths to justify work and assets taken away from Gears of Duty 9, a game directly targeting the common denominator. So a buying public that has its most massive, influential segment not particularly wanting to be informed is not helping.

Most of the gamers I know will by Gears of Duty 9, but will also fork out for the new Treasure, Vanillaware or Cave game. Hardcore maybe, but broad-minded in addition to being outspoken. They are also very much the minority. Joe gamer that goes into Gamestop once a week is going to buy Gears of Duty 9.

It reminds me of a vicious circle Charles L. Grant mentioned. Charles L. Grant is a horror novelist. His brand is a sort of quiet horror more atmospheric than in-your-face. He was talking about marketing, and complained (in a non-strident way) about getting attention drawn to his book. He had a publisher who thought his work warranted a contract and the release of his books, but they still lavished the in-store displays, wall-hangings, and huge spaces in the Barnes & Noble newsletter on the latest Stephen King novel. I don't think Grant has any personal grudge against King, but his point was that King doesn't NEED all that exposure. Its like the publisher is throwing even more money at an author for what is probably a negligible effect, a minor upping, weighed next to all the other publicity a new King work will get. Is that cardboard standup necessary for customers to find out there's a new King novel out? In the case of Grant and other middle-sales authors a cardboard standup could make a profound difference. Especially if it is put right next to the pyramid of King books sure to be located right at the front door of the bookstore. But because this isn't how it is done, King squeaks out a few more sales MAYBE. He also continues to be a golden child that the publisher throws yet more advertising behind, yet the same publisher also wonders why the new Grant novel just isn't selling as expected. So Grant gets LESS attention the next time. No use 'wasting' cash on that under-performer! Let it be said, I have no problems with Stephen King, and in fact he comes across as a fairly generous person most of the time. I don't think he's insisting he get umpteen feet of space and all other authors must defer. Movie celebrities might do that sort of shit, but I'm not accusing King. No, this has marketing suits and their logic written all over it.

But the point is that the game companies are already pushing money by the wheelbarrow-load to their big franchises. So that's what Joe Gamer sees. He also doesn't necessarily understand that there are other games worthy of his time OR a whole world of information that would tell him about it. Even if he's on the internet looking around, if he Googles Gears of Duty 9 the first page of entries is going to be dominated by Gamespot and IGN. Once he's read their 'reviews' (nee mating display) why would he go looking for another? How would he even know there is another view? What would compel him to look?

Nothing really. It is a quality-squashing cycle. The companies know Gears of Duty makes money, so they push Gears of Duty to the detriment of other games. Part of the push is to bribe the media. So when it comes time for Joe Gamer to buy a game all fronts are united, including the supposedly unbiased front, IF Joe Gamer even cared. Which most often seems he doesn't.

So in a way, you might almost look at this journalist corruption as a victimless crime. If the end customer is getting games he's happy playing within the system as it stands, what's the problem? The problem is that Joe Gamer is NOT the only gamer out there even if the others are a minority. And there is nothing wrong with that minority attempting to stand up for games that Joe Gamer could like just as much or more if only given a chance.

Also the situation pisses ME off, so that's justification enough for a major change right there. Even if a review or opinion piece in one of the major outlets was uninfluenced... how would you know? All credibility lies smeared into the journalists' bedsheets post-bukakke session.

See ECM's site (and some of the others in his sidebar) for egregious examples of this whorish behavior as it crops up. I really don't have the energy or the will to run this crap down on a regular basis. Being The Daily Show of the video game world can be their deal and not mine. I'll just bitch when my fed-up-o-meter tops out.

Note: I'm pretty much describing USA and Japan-based media in this rant. The UK-based mags present something of an exception. They DO report on the seedy underbelly of various game company doings, and are critical in their previews and reviews. The problem for me with these periodicals is one of tone mostly. It might be a fine balancing act to be positive without being fawning, but I'll save that for another post.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Just About Enough

Okay, some games are just too goshdamn big. I’m all in favor of value for money, but there’s limits… or there should be limits.

The game that has got me posting is Tokyo Xtreme Racer Drift 2. A Genki racing game that is a fucking fixture on my Backloggery work in progress list. You’d think I’d be used to this by now, with as many of these games as I’ve gone through, but they just keep getting bigger and more complicated!

Don’t get me wrong. Its fine for a game to have some meat on its bones. The hour-long runs on a Mushihimesama or Street Fighter IV are great. The twelve hours of delicious combat action to get through the story in Bayonetta, awesome. But sometimes you need something you can just dig into like a big book. Spending two or three weeks on an RPG can be truly enjoyable with the right game… I’ll be playing Skies of Arcadia before long.

BUT. Jeezis. Enough is enough! TXRD2 is gigantimous! There’s the usual, for Genki, SEVERAL HUNDRED listed rivals. THEN there are a bunch of randomly-created ones… some forum guy has counted FIVE HUNDRED random rivals. Then there are dozens of sponsors to earn (with races) so they basically count as rivals. Ten long courses each with sets of basic, advanced and master level races. Six short courses full of daytime rivals (and YET MORE sponsors to race). And each long course also has a gymkhana parking lot with ten levels of both time attack and drift attack to master.

The stuff you’re given to handle all that shit: A gigantic list of like two hundred cars, some based on real life track cars, some only available in the used lot… yes, there are like four car dealers in the goshdamn game… umpteen squillion parts, an ingame computer complete with multiple forums (one for each track!) a general info site, and an effin’ email system! What the fuck? I pride myself on beating all rivals and finishing each Genki racer into the ground, but who the hell has time for all this?

Role-playing game? I’ll give you role-playing game! You are an up and coming racer, and you will get up each day, check your emails and forum posts including replying to the asswipes that challenge you, back out and go make yourself a sandwich (that’s a real-life sandwich, by the way). Then you’ll go down to all the car shops. Sometimes some motherfucker is waiting for you at one (or more!) of the shops and challenges you. Then after you are all done shopping… oh I dunno, for parts or paint or layers and layers of vinyls or gauges, you go back to your garage and install your parts, tweaking the settings in every detail including reflashing the engine management chips. THEN you can test drive it on any course including a GIGANTIC circuit that isn’t even used for anything else in the game. Once that’s all good you can… wait, better make sure your sponsor stickers are all up to date and placed in optimum position on your car! Don’t want to lose out on any sponsorship money every time you win!

Now motherfucker! Go race! Pick a course. Either do an official course challenge; time attack or drift. Or choose one of the more advanced races limited to certain engine sizes or cars or ability levels YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE YET! And if you don’t have them you MUST buy the appropriate make or size of car and go shop and install all the shit that car will need to be competitive. AND/OR go to the parking area and see if that dickburger that challenged you in the shop is there. After you’ve done everything you can do, go on to the next course. Make sure you alter your tires or suspension for each different kind of track, challenge or CLIMATE CHANGE.

Oh yeah. There’s climate in the game. Sunny, cloudy/foggy, rainy and snow. So don’t fuck up your tire choice. And after you’ve gone over all ten long courses and six short courses, depending on how much you’ve unlocked, and done whatever you can do or until you keel over… THEN go back to your garage and save your game.

Guess what? If you were to do all that for umpteen days in a row and rested every game night you wouldn’t even scratch the street race rival portion of the game. So just like a street racing junkie who has no money for drugs but pours all his funds into repairs, parts, and RockStar energy drink… you get to stay up at night and race, race, race until dawn. And as you face each rival he has some shit he needs to say to you—usually trash talk, and if you want he has a whole background card you can read up on. Fuck you, man! I don’t want your life story. Shut up and race!

Day/night/day/night. Over and over. And some of these guys WAIT. They wait until a certain day or a certain type of weather, or you’ve beaten someone else.

All of this should be great. And in a way it is. It is the culmination of everything Genki has been doing to make the street racing experience immersive. It takes like EVERYTHING they’ve used in games before and mooshes it altogether into one monster highway world. The only thing that I think is missing is the freeway tracks from the Shutokou games (this is about rural racing) and the special non-car items you could buff your abilities with in Racing Battle. It is really impressive actually. The parking areas are detailed. The rivals are all fleshed out. When you read a post from one of them, if you’ve beaten them you can link to their car and their bio. Its all connected and well detailed. And there’s a lot of tracks. A lot of cars. The rivals cars all look different and they act and talk as individuals with their own interests or emphases. There’s cool dramatic cutscenes of the bosses. It all adds up to make a compelling race world.

But it is JUST TOO BIG. I thought Racing Battle: C1 Grand Prix was big. RB isn’t Gran Turismo big, but it’s close. I generally don’t play Gran Turismo because for the size of the thing it is just too dry and colorless. Even if it did have more flavor it’d still be too big. Which is becoming the problem for me with TXRD2. It is so big that even all the cool immersive shit is beginning to get old. And it is so complicated that you just flat forget to cover all your bases. Its realistic in its way. The street racing world, especially with internet communications, is a really big sphere. But there’s a point where non-driving aspects threaten to overwhelm the fun. Amazingly, there is almost NO grinding in the game. Everything you do moves you forward. The game doesn’t make it difficult to buy new cars. There is always something new to do. But there is just so much. What fun is the fact that you are the fastest swimmer if the goal is crossing the Atlantic? I don’t care how fast you are, that opposite shore is going to seem a long way away!

I think I’m just tired of seeing this thing in my PS2. I could take a break from it, but the last time I did that, when I came back I discovered my drift skills had atrophied and I went through about two weeks of struggling to get back to being able to handle it. Never mind forgetting where I left off in this vast, non-linear game world. The thing is, it’s a great game. I’ve felt bitchy about Genki games before, much as I love them, but that usually revolves around grinding. Having to race over and over in order to get the cash to upgrade enough to beat a boss or buy a car to get a rival to appear. This game has none of that, but it seems like Genki felt you still needed X number of hours in the game, so if there’s no grinding we’ll just have to have more of everything.

I will persevere of course. I’m actually not that far from finishing the game if online rival lists are anything to go by… probably 85% done. It might be telling that Genki’s race game output went WAY down after this.

I said somewhere before that the smaller scale of Import Tuner Challenge was because of time probably spent on current-gen graphics, but now I think it is because most of the staff committed suicide after giving every iota of themselves in building TXRD2. They had nothing else to give and nothing to live for. I’m going to eat a bullet soon to if I don’t finish the damn game! I’m one of those players who doesn’t like to just rush pell-mell through RPGs, action adventures, or even first person shooters. I like to explore. Look at the art, interact with the characters, do the side quests. I’m not super-meticulous about it, but I don’t need to rush my game experience to get to the end. I probably dragged Bayonetta out about 40% longer than a straight-ahead playthrough because I just wanted to ‘look’ at everything. But with TXRD2, unfortunately, I now find myself skipping the color and just trying to be as efficient as possible and get shit done. My goal is 100% rivals defeated, so no skipping opponents, but there is no way I’m going to try to win every non-critical event too.

There really can be too much of a good thing.