Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bringin' The Meat

You never know what is going to catch on with your kids.

We recently downloaded a demo of Super Meat Boy on Xbox Live. I’d heard a lot of good things about the original flash Meat Boy game, but I’m not a big fan of playing games on a PC so I had no experience with it. Mostly it seemed to be described as a 2D platformer with old school difficulty (the very idea of 2D platforming is old school now) but a modern sense of humor and up-to-date sheen. That’s pretty accurate. It doesn’t limit lives or continues like the old games tended to. It does send you back to the beginning of each level when you die, BUT the levels are very short… most not much more than a single screen for the tiny Meat Boy to negotiate. It is a very accomplished distillation of what was fun about those old games, together with the challenge… but minus a lot of the grueling aspect that could make those games frustrating. Although I’m not really in the mood for 2D platformers right now, I do recognize the greatness and will probably give it a go at some point.

What I was not expecting was for my children to think Super Meat Boy is the Second Coming.

My kids are pretty varied in their game tastes… if I compare them to what I hear about their friends. My daughter has almost no buddies that play, but the little they do, it's all ‘Bemani’ stuff like Dance Dance Revolution. She likes DDR, but she also plays singing games like Lips, the action puzzler Peggle, platformers like Super Mario Galaxy and Drawn To Life, and she’s beaten the story mode on two Naruto fighting games. She’s also deadly at Wii Tennis. She doesn’t follow video game reviews, and without input from friends she just gets what she thinks she’d like, based on the game’s artwork, if it has a license she knows, or from something she might see me demo.

My son is much more into video gaming, and he has a ton of friends who also play (Yeah duh I guess, tween boy in USA circa 2010). All his cronies however, are into the latest murder simulators or whatever edgy M-rated game has the biggest hype-fest going on down at GameStop. As of this writing, the headliners are things like Modern Warfare: Black Ops and Fallout: New Vegas (yeah I know, an RPG). Well, because he lives with a parent who restricts the shit out of his intake of video game gore and criminality, he has had to find games that break away from all headshot junk his friends play... but that he'll still enjoy. In addition, because his gamer Dad only delves into gritty FPS or cover shooter games himself occasionally, he has been exposed to much of the OTHER stuff that’s out there. So like a kid whose culinary likes can be broadened by what the parents feed them, my son casts a pretty wide net (for a twelve year old) when it comes to playing games.

The dearth of his experience with M-rated games and his love of other genres baffles his friends and subjects him to some hardship unfortunately. But fun is fun and he has managed to cultivate a they’re-just-being-dumb-and-don’t-know-what-they’re-missing attitude. On the occasion he CAN overlap his experiences with theirs he does. This time he surprised me by going seriously old school with Super Meat Boy. And then so did my daughter.

Super Meat Boy has some edgy, sometimes inappropriate, humor but it isn't much worse than anything they might see on a Nickelodeon gross-fest situation comedy... um, apart from the inclusion of the lead character from the game Mighty Jill Off. If you don't get the double-entendre of that title Google awaits. The visuals and sound effects are cute black humor of the same sort one gets watching something like Mighty Tree Friends. So that got their attention, but the play mechanics have kept them there. Short, brutal levels with tight controls and really exacting platforming perils and solutions. You'll die a million times, but restarting at the beginning of each level is so quick... and the levels themselves so short... that most of the time you won't even have time to cuss and throw the controller. That's the genius. Yeah, its tough and potentially frustrating, but the game doesn't really give you enough time to think about how much you suck. The restart is instant, effectively showing you how a tantrum thrown is just wasting time you could be spending making another attempt. And when you do get through a level, the game replays all your attempts at the same time so you get the amusing sight of Meat Boy copies all throwing themselves at the various spots that were so difficult with one loner finally making it through!

I don't necessarily think my kids will suddenly want to just jump into old school 2D platformers. They are kind of interested in Sonic The Hedgehog 4, a new game with old mechanics, but that's probably about the limit. Besides the clunky music and graphics, the old games usually limited lives or continues or had MUCH more limited (or imprecise) controls compared to Meat Boy. As I said earlier, it is a modern distillation of an old set of mechanics which can be very satisfying and enjoyable when negotiated correctly. And it's almost as far from Call of Duty and the other flavor-of-the-month FPS games as you can get. Sometimes I have a hard time explaining what was so good about those old games... and why I still play them sometimes. Meat Boy pretty much explains it for me.

And too bad for their friends who think a cube of anthropomorphic meat ain't cool. No, he doesn't wear the latest in body armor or pick off gun runners with clean headshots through a 30x scope. A little break from that shit isn't a bad idea, kids.

(image cribbed from Kotaku, the devil's very armpit for Gaming Journalism)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Correctly Assembled

Man, I am just enjoying the crap out of Avengers: Earth Mightiest Heroes on Disney Channel’s XD programming.

There’ve been a lot of Marvel cartoons over the years, usually either based around Spider-Man or the mutant X-men. Sometimes various Avengers, like Iron Man or Captain America would guest-star in an episode. If you were an Avengers fan these little glimpses were tantalizing, but unsatisfying because they’d always crunch the character’s narratives and appearance down to just what would fit in an episode. Most of these shows were pretty juvenile.

Fox’s Batman and Superman cartoons showed that superhero cartoons could be viable for adults again. Teen Titans and later, the awesome Justice League programs showed how great shows about the groups could be. Justice League in particular really got me to waxing nostalgic for the old comics and enjoying the old heroes… from DC anyway.

The Avengers did have an absolute crap cartoon a little ways back. Ostensibly, the big three of Cap, Iron Man, and Thor were the founders but the show itself was made up of stories about their successors, a mashup of Avenger characters from slightly different eras Ant-Man, the Wasp, The Scarlet Witch, Hawkeye and The Vision all wearing newfangly armor and stuff that I guess was supposed to sell toys. This show was awful.

Then there were the direct-to-video movies about the Ultimates versions of the Avengers… and these weren’t bad. It dealt with superheroes and violence in a way no cartoon really had before because they didn’t have to cater so much to a family audience.

But none of this stuff was the real deal.

Now with all the excitement over the two live-action Iron Man films, and the upcoming Thor, Cap and Avengers movies, Marvel Entertainment has pushed out a new series about the ‘true’ Avengers, and it is nearly awesome.

It has some rather obvious nods to the live-action films, like Iron Man’s voice actor sounding and acting like Robert Downey Jr, Jarvis being Stark’s computer, and a black Nick Fury (which itself comes from the Ultimates version of the Avengers). Flashbacks to Captain America show WW2 with Hydra as the enemy as opposed to the Nazis (in the comics Hydra did exist back then, but it was an underground terrorist organization separate, but associating with Nazi Germany) and preview info on the Cap movie shows that Cap will mostly be facing Hydra during that era.

My favorite old Avengers ‘event’ was always Cap’s awakening in the modern age and becoming a cornerstone of the Avengers (he wasn’t actually a founder). The new series sets this up really well. Having a few episodes with each of the founders off doing their own thing, and then coming together over a crisis they can’t handle individually… in this case a breakout of all villains from the various super-prisons in the Marvel Universe. They even have The Hulk join temporarily, as he did in the Avengers comics, and then set up future episodes with the Masters of Evil, the original Avengers first evil counter-group.

You need a scorecard if you aren’t familiar with the Marvel Universe, which I consider something of a detriment for rookie comic fans… but for old school fans this show is the bomb. Good thing my kids have me around to explain who everyone is. My son has a bit of a leg up having played the two Ultimate Alliance games! The animation is decent, the plotting okay (considering how much modern stuff they feel they need to fold in), it is quite violent, and the characterization of the heroes themselves is spot on.

I actually kinda got chills watching The Avengers find Cap, then totally underestimate him and get schooled while he thought they were Hydra agents. At one point he stuns Iron Man with his shield, grabs him out of the air, uses Iron Man’s repulsors to gun down Giant-Man, then throws Iron Man to knock Thor down. He only stops beating them up when the Wasp shows him a memorial statue of himself and the now-dead Bucky Barnes. Previous cartoon appearances had him as little more than a muscle guy who could throw a round shield. Here (and in the Ultimates cartoons) he is shown as the Marvel Universe’s ultimate combatant.

Violent as it is the show is still somewhat restrained by political correctness and considerations for the upcoming movies, but it is a thrill to finally see my favorite heroes of childhood portrayed nearly as they’ve been in the comics.

Corny but recommended.

True This...


Along my oft-repeated refrain that length (or so-called 'content'), doesn't make or break a game's quality. I've played through two-thirds of Vanquish, doing fairly poorly, and it has taken about seven hours.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Road To Kingship...

...begins with becoming a CG facsimile.


Mark my words. Soon all of nerd-dom will be under his rule.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Rubbing My Hands Together and Chortling

So I've finished a big game and need to start another. After the mind-numbingly long slog that was Okami, I want my big game to have some meat on its bones but still be a lot less of an investment.

Also this month sees the release of, not one, but TWO Cave shooters, Guwange and Dodonpachi Daifukkatsu. So I have to be prepared to drop 'the big game' for a few days at a stretch and not feel like it is a huge chore to pick back up again and figure out where I left off.

I really need to get to Brutal Legend, but I *think* that game is going to be longer than I need right now. Vanquish just came out, looks awesome (and I've played the demo) but at about seven hours to play through the campaign game it doesn't even qualify and can just be added into rotation like it was an STG!

So I think I'm going to hit the Xbox 360 version of Wolfenstein. I haven't played an FPS since the prequel... in fact I bought the prequel specifically to bone up on the narrative and setting for THIS game. I don't think it is brutally long. And since the previous Wolfenstein had very clear objective aids, and all FPS games have pretty standard controls, I don't think breaking off for a rounds of Cave games or Vanquish is going to leave me discombobulated in my mission to off the Nazis.

I'm kind of in the mood too. After all the fluff and humor in Okami. Its time to get down to some serious killin'. The only thing that stands between Hitler and his quest for mystic power is ME. Okay, BJ Blasko the protagonist of Wolfenstein. But that's still me.

Fuck that Hitler guy.

Wolf Time Is Over

So wow. I finally completed Okami.

I didn’t try to do all the side quests or collect all the items. I didn’t just do a full-tilt run through… there’s some extra gathering and grinding because I didn’t really know what would be necessary to complete the main objectives. Now that I know what the main narrative is, and have a good idea what abilities are needed to reach hidden items, I could do another run-through, and even without looking at a guide any further, complete it with a pretty high percentage.

But I’m not going to go through the game again. And here’s why: It is just too long.

It seems odd to me that this game has so many aspects of a long RPG (that most people would probably play through once, maybe trying to complete as much incidental stuff as possible) and many aspects of a collectible-heavy action game like Super Mario Galaxy (that folks might play over and over again to get better grades on each level and find all the shit).

Okami is another in a huge array of action-RPG games, the definition of which varies from gamer to gamer….with Okami seeming to skew heavily to the action side. You move and fight in real-time… and it is possible to run from one end of the kingdom to the other without using the overworld map. Like Odin Sphere or Muramasa your characters strength and survivability are greatly affected by the RPG elements, the items and leveling up. My problem with Okami is a lot like the issues I had with Odin Sphere. Even long action games tend to be a more distilled gaming experience compared to RPGs. When an action game tries to BE an RPG… in some misguided attempt to provide value for money or something… then it overstays its welcome. Okami took me fifty hours to complete. At 25 or 30 hours it would’ve been more than a good buy (play time-wise). If I’d tried to find all the items and do all the side missions I can’t imagine how inflated my time would’ve been. And Okami is beautiful and slick, but it ain’t THAT beautiful and slick.

If you’ve read any of my posts on Odin Sphere, my feelings about Okami would read very similarly. It is very beautiful, it has a wonderful soundtrack, and the story is cool and funny at times, with a lot of characters, some of which are quite memorable. So the aesthetics are firing on all cylinders. It doesn’t recycle scenery as much as Odin Sphere did, but other aspects of the game drag on and on and on. Boss fights in particular a hugely long AND recycled. You fight Orochi, the major villain of piece three times… and none of them are quick.

The whole game illustrates the adage ‘too much of a good thing’. You can get sick of you favorite food if you eat enough of it. Okami threw new missions, new characters, and new locations at me, and I still got sick of it after the first half. There have been a number of times I’ve tucked in with a long book, or a huge game and enjoyed it. But the mechanics of this game just speak to a more focused play experience than it turned out to be. When these guys formed a different company and produced Bayonetta I think they figured out what works. Bayonetta has A LOT in common with this game apart from the style of the artwork… but is much shorter and more focused, while still having aspects you can dig into and explore. You get graded on your performance for each battle in Okami, just like in Bayonetta. There’s a lot of skill and technique involved, choosing the correct weapon and practicing enough to get good and kill the monsters as quickly as possible, just like Bayonetta. There is no method to jump right back to a sub-level without replaying the whole campaign, which is decidedly NOT like Bayonetta. They’ve got this whole action/combat thing going on, but it is inextricably woven into this GIANT story.

Ever play one of those games where the objectives, steps towards objectives, or puzzles are so obtuse you’d swear they are in there just so you have to buy the guidebook? Yeah, Okami has some of those. Japanese mentality being different and all that, there were times when some of what the game wanted from me was just impossible to figure out. It might be a puzzle, or it might be ‘where to go next’ based on some obscure hint an NPC gave out. The game keeps a log of objectives and hints but some of it was just so oblique I couldn’t manage it. I probably looked at an online guide about five times through the course of the game. I’m not proud of that, but four of those times I went ‘how the fuck did they expect me to know that?’. So there you go.

I can’t say it’s a bad game. It looks like no other game and it is obvious that the designers put their all into it. I’m a game aesthetics whore, so there is a lot about Okami that really speaks to me. But, it kind of sucks for such a huge, beautiful, expansive game to make me say that I’m glad its over.

But I’m glad its over.

(image kyped from GameFAQs)