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1:05 AM on 06.14.2010

Now Loading: Red Dead Redemption - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently engaged with, enraged at or totally perplexed by.

Howdy you lily-livered, yella bellied dtoiders! This week’s Now Loading is focused on Rockstar’s popular western themed game, Red Dead Redemption. I’m about halfway through the game at this point but have plenty of initial impressions to share. So read on as I discuss “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly” of Red Dead Redemption.

Today I’ll just discuss what I liked about the game (The Good), in the next column I’ll talk about some of the elements I disliked and as for the contents of ‘The Ugly,” well I’ll just keep that to myself for now. Keep in mind I haven’t completed the game yet so many of these observations are tentative and are subject to change depending on which direction the game takes.

The Good:

The Best Western Game Ever!?

There have been plenty of western themed video games since way back in the arcade days but none has managed to get it so right until now. Usually western games offer little more than a retread of familiar tropes (a gears of war style shooter, a beat-em up, an RPG) only with the graphics changed to emulate the old west aesthetic. RDR seems to be built from the ground up with its setting in mind, and I’m not just talking about the perfectly faithful graphics which help set the atmosphere. Everything you could imagine doing in a western has been simulated: from the most exhilarating actions (frenetic gang shootouts, tense gun duels,) to the most mundane everyday tasks (herding cattle, lassoing horses, playing high stakes card games.) This is the first time that I actually felt like I was playing a character in a Sergio Leone movie, and it’s because the game gives you the tools to recreate the coolest scenes of almost every single amazing western movie ever made.

The Best Open World Game Ever!?

The way those tools are so seamlessly integrated into the world and made accessible to the player is what makes RDR the best open world game I’ve played.

Unlike the Grand theft Auto games that inspired it, the mission structure here is actually more conducive towards allowing you to do your own thing. In GTA the most essential component of the game seemed to be the main quest, sure you could mess around, act like a self proclaimed agent of chaos, but it seemed that you were limited to causing crime and devastation and making stunt jumps when it came to tackling the game’s sandbox nature. Engaging in these activities seemed like something completely alien to Niko Bellic’s (GTAIV’s protagonist) story, just a mindless distraction until I got back to business and tackled the main storyline missions.

With RDR this paradigm is almost reversed. The most essential and entertaining part of the game is actually the sandbox portion. Sure the main storyline missions do drive the story forward but you never feel rushed to take on the missions, nor do you feel like you’re wasting time when you are just roaming the world and finding interesting stuff to do. The most ingenious element is the introduction of random events.

While you are roaming the wilderness or just hanging out in town you will come across several random events; some I have seen include: A woman being hunted by a pack of wolves, a prostitute about to be murdered by a crazed client, a gang of hoodlums terrorizing a town, a sheriff who wants you to help him recover a stolen safe. The way you choose to handle these events is probably one of the best (but not only) sources of the games most memorable moments. The most brilliant aspect of these events is the fact they are repeatable; the game encourages you try those events again and again handling them in different ways, experimenting with your options and creating a unique tale each and every time. There is an excellent article by Mike Dunbar that touches on this repetitive encounter element in great detail with some well thought-out comparisons to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, I encourage you to check it out here.

Bonnie McFarlane is an awesome character:

There was a recent article here on Destructoid which points out how games rarely introduce well developed female characters that have a friendly (platonic) relationship with the male protagonist.

The character of Bonnie McFarlane completely sidesteps this trend. She is not a sexpot who tramps around in a revealing outfit, but she is by no means unattractive. She dresses sort of like a tomboy but still manages to come off as very feminine. She is a strong, self-sufficient woman who expertly takes on many roles and responsibilities usually regulated to men; she is also portrayed as handling those duties more efficiently than her male counterparts. She earns John Marston’s (the protagonist) respect with her direct plainspoken no-nonsense manner, her adherence to principles and her strength. But she wins his friendship with her demonstrations of camaraderie and loyalty. Initially, she seems to be attracted to Marston, but she backs off and respects his space once he reveals that he is a married man. These and numerous others reasons indicate that Bonnie McFarlane is definitely one of the most deftly constructed female NPCs to appear in a videogame.

However, there is a moment in the game where the effort nearly comes crashing down. Bonnie is inevitably captured and reduced to the cliché ‘damsel-in-distress’ role. Fortunately, this is somewhat salvaged by some of her dialogue after she is rescued. Regardless, it is unfortunate that Rockstar felt the need to head towards such a predictable route, I was hoping they would turn the cliché on its head and have Bonnie rescue Marston.

Dead Eye Vision:

Not much to say here other than I felt this was a flawless implementation of bullet time. I was initially skeptical as the concept of bullet-time seemed to be out of place for a game set in the old west, but having the ability to shoot two or three enemies at once, or to skillfully blast the gun out of my opponents hand during a shoot-out did a lot to make me feel like the archetypical Western hero; think Clint Eastwood walking into a saloon and taking down an entire gang before they even get a chance to pull out their guns. It doesn’t necessarily remove all of the danger; you still have to think fast and can die if you act recklessly. Bullet-time in RDR makes the player feel like a total bad-ass without making him feel invincible.


The Music:

Perhaps the best thing to come out of this game. Bill Elm and Woody Jackson of Rockstar perfectly nailed the feel of those old Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtracks. The quiet moments are fueled by discreet ambient sounds and the occasional sharp twang. Intense moments are complimented by music with enough propulsive energy to rival Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven theme. It’s much better than the soundtracks to the Wild Arms (a western themed JRPG) games, and considering that I absolutely love the music of Wild Arms, that’s saying a lot. (If you never heard anything by the old school movie composers I mentioned earlier, I posted some clips throughout the article of the aforementioned Magnificent Seven theme and Morricone’s theme to “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” Check them out, you won’t regret it.)


That’s it for now you dog-meat faced buckaroos. In the next two installments of ‘Now Loading’ I’ll continue my discussion on Red Dead Redemption and focus on what I thought needed improvement (The Bad.) After that, in the third installment I’ll surprise you with my discussion of ‘The Ugly.’

If you scum sucking varmints have any comments, disagreements or questions I challenge you stop flappin’ your jaw and pull out your pistol pardna'. Or if you’re feeling especially nasty you can just leave a comment below.   read

11:30 AM on 06.10.2010

Nethack Adventures Issue #2: Argento searches for his loyal steed, Bava

Nethack Adventures is an episodic series which will cover the escapades, missteps and inevitable death of a character. The current incarnation of my eternal champion is Argento, a level 1 knight.

This is the second entry in the series, if you have time, I wholeheartedly encourage you to check out the first entry which includes some background information on Nethack. You can find it here: Part 1

Like last time, some parts of the post will be written from the character's in game perspective and will be in the style of an ultra cheesy fantasy novel. These sections will be in italics and easy to distinguish from the rest of the column. I insist you imagine them being read by the legendary Dr. Ronald Chevalier to get the full effect.


Previously on Nethack Adventures: Argento and his pony Bava, had just made it to the second level of the dungeon. Argento had not gone far when suddenly he was transported to an unfamiliar area within the dungeon. There he found himself surrounded by monstrous grid bugs. Bava, his faithful companion, was no where to be found.

Nethack Adventures Issue 2: The Search for Bava

When last we saw Argento he had just stumbled into a dire predicament. The righteous knight had been unexpectedly teleported to a remote part of the infernal dungeon and now was forced to defend himself against two enormous insects mysteriously known only as Grid Bugs.

Initially, the battle did not go well; Argento disorientated from his uninvited transference, swung wildly at one of the bugs and missed completely. Both bugs instantly took advantage of the awkward posture that followed his swing and zapped the warrior violently.

At this point Argento has lost two of his 16 hitpoints. In most RPG's losing 2 hitpoints is probably akin to breaking a fingernail. But in the early stages of Nethack, when some of the most inconsequential things can instantly kill you, those 2 hitpoints are vital; less like breaking a nail and more like losing an arm.

However, one thing I learned about Grid Bugs from past experience is this; they are total lightweights. They are the Glass Joe's of Nethack, that easily stomped Goomba from the opening screen of Super Mario brothers. The challenge they present is about equivalent to opening a jar. Sometimes you open that sucker up in one shot, other times it takes a bit of struggling but you always eventually get it in the end and barring any incredible circumstances (such as: someone wired the jar to explode when opened) you will probably win at this task without causing any significant harm to yourself.

The previous sentence was an effort to present the most awful analogy imaginable, now that I have (intentionally?) succeeded at reaching that low point, continue onwards with the knowledge that this blog can only improve.

Most readers are probably thinking: "But Lazaro didn't you make them out to be these monstrous unstoppable beasts in your last blog post? You kept us waiting for this bullshit? What kind of hack (shitty pun intended) writer are you!?" Ok, you got me. I'll admit it, I embellished a bit for the sake of an awesome cliffhanger. But I promise the next few tidbits will make up for all of my evil (yet you must admit, entertaining) exaggerations.

Lets find out a bit more about grid bugs, shall we?

You will notice that they zapped me. Hmm but what kind of bug zaps? Maybe they share some of the characteristics of a lightning bug, an insect which projects light from it's anal region in order to attract possible mates. I'd imagine a Grid Bug would be like a gigantic, wingless Lightning bug that shoots thunderbolts from it's asshole. So basically it kicks ass by farting electricity. I decided to check out WikiHack to see how great my powers of deductive reasoning are.

Wickihack's description states: "Grid bugs are one of the weakest monsters. They are nothing to worry about once you pass level 2. They usually deal no damage at all, unless they manage to zap you as well ("You get zapped!"), and even then the damage is very small, thus the only real damage is when they have you cornered (for example in a corridor) next to a more powerful monster. They never leave corpses. Grid bugs are unique in that they cannot move or attack diagonally. Their electric attack does not break your rings and wands unless they are higher level than zero."

Ok, I can see I was spot on in my assessment of how weak they are but that doesn't do much to explain WHAT they are. However, get ready for your face to melt, at the very end of the entry we get the following awesome line which makes this whole digression worth it: "The concept of grid bugs came from the 1982 Disney film, Tron."

Holy shit! Turns out a Grid Bug is actually the personification of a computer bug/glitch in the Tron universe. So not only are you fighting a monster from one of the coolest 80's Sci-Fi movies, you are also fighting the meta-representation of a 'computer bug' or 'glitch' within the game itself. How awesome is that? Nethack is full of amazing clever references and hidden Easter eggs like this. The fact that random humorous asides like this exist buried within the game says a lot about it's quirky personality; discovering them is just one of the many small things I've grown to love about the game.

Hopefully that astounding fact was enough for readers to forgive my fake cliffhanger. Lets, get back to Argento and see how he makes out against these two wimpy grid bugs.

Turns: 399-593
Note: Sometimes, I will put the specific number of a turn in parentheses within the description of the event

Argento regained his composure and swiftly swung his long sword easily splitting one of the gridbugs in half. The other one arched its body and shot out a small ray of light. Argento sidestepped it easily, and cleaved it to pieces with his next swing. The knight stopped for a moment to catch his breath and then scanned his surroundings. "Where am I? What Happened?" these were the obligatory questions he asked himself as his eyes ran along the perimeter of the small room, spotting a doorway in the distance and some stairs heading downwards nearby. Instantly his thoughts turned to his missing steed, "Bava, you ridiculous mule, you better keep yourself alive until I can find you."

After both bugs are eliminated (400) I make my way towards the other room where I find 27 pieces of gold. I know I am still on level 2 but the entire area seems unmapped. It's possible that whatever transported me hit me with an amnesia spell which would cause me to lose all memory of previously discovered areas and render them all black on the map screen. Either way, I have to find my way to Bava as quickly as possible. I decide to ignore the stairs to level 3 for now and find my way back to wherever I came from.

Two things can happen to pets if left on their for some time, both of them bad.

The first is that every turn I take, there is the potential for Bava to find himself in battle with a beast and there is a high chance that he can die. Pets are a very powerful and useful tool, especially during the early game, so losing him now would do a lot to make things harder for me in the long run. The fact that my character is a knight, who can ride a saddled pony later on to increase his speed is an added incentive.

The second bad outcome is that Bava can become feral if no one is around to feed him. If this happens, then he will no longer recognize me as his master and when we meet again he will attack me. Feral pets are pretty damn dangerous, especially if they leveled up alongside you. Bava is still level one like me so he will probably not be too fearsome; still, I grow attached to my pets and it sucks to have to fight them. Luckily, it takes a while for pets to go feral and I still have all of the apples and carrots I started with - so it's highly unlikely that he'll turn against me and I can try to bribe him back to my side with some food in the rare case that he does.

Non-Stop Secret Door Action!:

I notice that the room I am currently in has no exits aside from the where I entered. This means I have to spend some time searching the walls for a way out. If I was playing on a PC I would hit the 's' key to spend one turn searching, but this doesn't always produce results, you have to search a certain tile multiple times before you can know for sure whether or not the wall contains a secret door. Luckily the iPhone interface simplifies this with a handy '20s' key (you can see it on the lower left hand corner in the screenshots) which automatically searches a tile 20 times. I spend a whole lot of time walking from tile to tile and searching the walls (429-593) but I find nothing.

On turn 593 I receive a message: "You hear the footsteps of a guard on patrol." From previous experiences, I think the message means there is a special room, like a vault or throne room, on this floor. I'll give a more detailed explanation of both in the future, but for the moment it will suffice to say that both rooms usually contain a shitload of useful items and are guarded by a small army of monsters. Instead, I'll just present you with a a turn by turn account of the most exciting thing to ever occur in the game of Nethack.

594 - Argento searches a wall and finds nothing.

595 - Argento searches the wall next to it and finds nothing

596 - Argento searches the wall and - wait whats that, on the floor he reaches down to grab a nugget of what appears to be gold...but the yellowish substance crumbles in his hands leaving behind a putrid odor. "Shit!" Argento jumps back and wipes his hands off on his armor.

597 - Argento searches a wall by punching it and finds nothing

598 - Argento searches a wall by banging his head against it in frustration. Finds nothing.

599 - Argento cries... as he searches another wall. Guess what he found. Nothing.

I'm sure you're thinking "Holy shit, what I am doing playing games like Red Dead Redemption when I could be searching walls in Nethack. I didn't know games could be like this! Wow! I'm gonna go download Nethack and go feel up on some walls right away!"

Of course, you want me to go on with a in-depth blow by blow account of my wall searching exploits but for expediencies sake and also for the reader's physical safety (because continuing with the discussion would surely be so action packed that it will make your brain explode from sensory overload) I'll just skip a few turns ahead. After all, I want my readers alive to witness this next accomplishment.

Turns: 600-623

Argento is still searching walls. Finds nothing. (BAM! Brain melted!)

Turns: 624-699

Finally a motherfucking wall... I mean doorway!(624)

I enter and follow the passage which after some time leads me (653) to another empty room. I discover another passage in the north end of the room. I have my knight slip past a boulder in the passageway and then unexpectedly he comes face to face with a horrendous ugly faced red skinned humanoid. A goblin!

The goblin sneered, raised his blood-colored arm backwards and powerfully swung a gnarled blunt wooden club at Argento. Argento made a desperate attempt to maneuver out of the way but found his movements too sluggish and the passage too narrow for any effective footwork. The club smashed with a brutal force against his rib cage, the armor absorbed some of the blow's might but the knight momentarily felt the ominous sensation of drowning as the wind slipped out of his lungs. Argento then out of pure will and instinct managed to find the power kick at the creature, missing it entirely but creating some distance between them. Then like a mirage the image of walls, and how they mocked him for hours as he searched them for a doorway, filled his minds eye. Almost instantly, anger rushed into his blood - pure fury and outrage engulfed him and those forces reached into his soul and took control of his blade. He impulsively poked it forward skewering the goblin then stabbed his sword continuously into the cretin's stomach area and slid it around until he felt goblin's life drain away completely. With the goblin's life, so too did the fury recede and Argento slowly slid the sword out of the fiends belly and with it came it's intestines which dropped to the floor accompanied by grotesque squish sound. The knight uttered a silent prayer and then wiped his sword clean. He muttered indignantly to himself as he continued onward, "I detest secret doors."

The fight with the goblin left me with 13/16 hit-points but in the end I managed to get the drop on him with two decent blows which followed a duo of misses (662). I decide to press forward, but do so carefully until I regain my health. I follow the path to another room and bump into two Newts (672), I kill them easily and take the time to eat one of the corpses.

I follow another passage leading out of the room and come to a closed door. I open it and am greeted by none other than... faithful pony BAVA! THERE YOU ARE BUDDY!(699) He waited for me in the room all this time. I'm so happy to see him that I toss him an apple and he catches the sucker and munches it down. In that screenshot you can also see an odd symbol near the center of the room. As you probably guessed that symbol is most likely the trap that transported me to the other end of the dungeon.

I walk over to it and hit the ';' to inspect it and sure enough the description reveals it to be a "teleportation trap." The mystery is officially solved.

What better place to end this week's Nethack Adventure then here when things are at their brightest. Argento and Bava are reunited and surely we can all agree that it's a happy ending, but this is Nethack and no victory is absolute; this is a game that loves tearing players down to pieces right when they are at the height of their confidence. Will our heroes prevail against all odds and complete their quest? Will they even make it out of level two alive? Tune in next time when Argento has to face one of the most banal yet mightiest obstacles found within Nethack, the ever present and pervasive feeling of 'hunger.'

As always, any comments, questions or suggestions on how I can improve this series are much appreciated so if you have some time please leave some feedback.   read

9:54 PM on 06.06.2010

Now Loading: The Unbearable Lightness of Gaming

Now Loading: The Unbearable Lightness of Gaming

Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently engaged with, enraged at or totally perplexed by.

I like to commit. Once I pick up a game and decide to stick with it, I go all the way and become fervently monogamous. I might play one or two arcade style games on the side but for the most part I remain 100% loyal and dedicated to the game I've chosen, absolutely unwilling to devote time to anything else. I do this even if I just put down some hard earned money on the latest AAA release.

Most of the time this works out to my benefit. I find myself much more absorbed and engaged when I stick to just one demanding game (as most AAA titles tend to be,) then when I try to juggle two or three at once. The mindless arcade games I play on the side are nice palette cleansers that beg only the most minimal devotion. In short I play games the way some people watch movies, from beginning to end in order to absorb it and appreciate it as completely as possible. By contrast the arcade-style games that I play in short intense bursts are sort of the equivalent of TV shows I watch on the side.

However, there is an exception to this odd quirk. There is a time when I transform into the most decadent, free-spirited, rambunctious type of gamer; freely jumping from one game to another, unable - no, unwilling to settle down or commit to anything. It's that special period of time when I'm in between games, when I have just completed the latest AAA title and find myself floating in the ether of independence.

I undergo a metamorphosis, no longer that loyal committed reliable dude, I find myself transformed into a truly promiscuous and philandering whore. I dip casually from game to game, sampling them in small morsels, relishing them momentarily and then irreverently kicking them to the curb. I jump sporadically from partner to partner, until I once again find that one special partner I choose to stick with.


This entry of Now Loading is focused on one of these exuberant yet self indulgent time periods.

After finally completing FFXIII I decided to delve into the opening segments of various games.

I made the acquaintance of several war buddies in Valkyria Chronicles and fought alongside them in a few brisk battles. I took on the opening segment of Demon's Souls and found myself slaughtered thoroughly, practically diced to pieces - and strangely I found the beatings enjoyable. I messed around with the character editor in 3-D Dot Heroes and infiltrated and overwhelmingly PWND the first dungeon. I revisited one of my old flames, Symphony of the Night, loaded up an old save file and re-experienced the archetype of a perfect old-school platformer.

During these quick samplings I never felt confined by attachment, it was easy to put one game down and move on. I played them all with the intention of restarting from scratch when I would eventually get around to committing to a serious play-through.

No, now was not the time for solemn analysis or meticulous, find every secret you can gaming. My critic hat was discarded and stepped on - now was the time to relax, and enjoy these games on the most superficial level possible. To enjoy them the same way I did when I was 10.

Perhaps the biggest incentive for me to participate in this lighthearted and shallow style of gaming was the purchase of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. During this week's mandatory grocery shopping at Wal-Mart I saw it sitting on a discount shelf for $19.99 and couldn't resist.

I had a blast revisiting some of my favorite childhood memories. My girlfriend even joined in the fun for some of the two player titles.

Altered Beasts: "Rise from your graves!!" This game is constantly maligned nowadays for its simplicity, amusingly bad voice samples and questionable controls. However, at the time of release, Altered Beasts was a milestone. In the arcades its graphics were top notch and the transformation gimmick was a pretty cool concept. I remember dumping dozens of quarters into this sucker back then and even being satisfied with the much inferior Genesis port. (Luckily the Genesis collection has an unlockable version of the Arcade version.)

And you know what, despite the fact that it's become a laughing stock nowadays, I think it still holds up as a fun game. Sure, it may seem kind of trite when compared to modern games, where you are expected to play for hours at a time. But Altered Beasts isn't that type of game. Grab a friend play the game for 30 minutes - kick some demon ass, transform into a pixelized dragon, die a bit, throw your controller, beat the boss, high-five your co-op partner and then... move on. Played in this way the game is sure to entertain.

Phantasy Star I, II, III and IV: Anyone who knows me at all, knows that Phantasy Star is my favorite RPG series of all time. Of course I had to briefly revisit the beginning segments of all four games as soon as I got this compilation. The games have held up pretty well, though I imagine the heavy grinding, lack of voice acting and intricate cut scenes would turn off a lot of newer gamers. Still, the opening 20 minutes of IV, despite lacking modern ingredients, managed to be more compelling in its plot and provide more charming character moments than the entirety of FFXIII.

Streets of Rage: My girlfriend and I had a blast with this one. I don't know what it is about Streets of Rage but it has some indescribable element that exudes pure fun. The repetitive beat em' up action with the same ol' enemies should be boring as hell. The ease at which we accidentally hit or grab each other should be extremely frustrating. But somehow all of these seemingly shitty elements added to the fun. That girl with the whip that gave us a hard time? My girl couldn't wait to see her again so she could utterly beat her ass (God forbid I tried to help or join in, nope this female opponent was claimed solely to be hers.) The accidental punches led to epic bouts of revenge fights and trash talking that turned out to be incredibly amusing . So was working together to get off that move where one player grabs the other so he can do a super kick. Of course, it never worked for us, we usually ended getting our asses kicked for even trying that dumb move but the spectacle of it was just pure entertainment.

Of course one drawback is that Streets of Rage requires two players for it to be this fun, I couldn't even imagine playing this game solo.

Golden Axe: I still have a warm place in my heart for the arcade version of Golden Axe. But the Genesis port left a lot to be desired. The graphics of the port are horrendous in comparison, and the fighting controls don't feel nearly as graceful. We had an ok time playing it co-op but it didn't grab us the same way Streets of Rage did.

Dr. Robotniks M.B.M.: One of the few games on the compilation I never even heard of before. We played a few competitive rounds of this odd puzzle game that was sort of a cross between Dr. Mario and Puzzle Bobble. Maybe we didn't play it enough to really 'get' how it's supposed to work but we found it was just meh. Also, and maybe this is because we didn't check out the single player scenario, we couldn't figure out what the hell Dr. Robotnik had to do with this game. The least he could do is show up and laugh at you when you lose or something. As far as we could tell his appearance was only in name.


Perhaps the biggest lesson to draw from this experience is how much games and the way we play them have changed with the times. The Genesis collection reminded me that at one point the majority of games were created for the state of mind and style of play I'm describing in this blog. We can probably all remember a time when friends would come visit us and we would constantly switch cartridges in and out of the console. Playing a game only for as long as it kept us entertained, moving from mindlessly punching enemies in the face in Double Dragon to playing a competitive puzzle game and when bored with that throwing on a racing game.

Sure there were games like Phantasy Star, Final Fantasy and Zelda which encouraged us to devote hours at a time to them but back then these games were the few exceptions that proved the rule. It's funny how things have completely shifted in the other direction nowadays. Arcade style games that were as easy to put down as they were to pick up, that provided a few refined ideas and encouraged you to enjoy them for a short period of time are now out of vogue.

I love the fact that games have progressed to the point where the majority of them are expected to be engrossing, mechanically complex and narratively ambitious but sometimes I yearn for simpler times. That's why I also played:

Hydorah: If you fondly remember playing old school shoot 'em up games like R-Type, Gradius and Lifeforce then you will absolutely love this Indy tribute from Locomalito. All the classic shooter elements they draw from are spot on and they also manage to include some pretty unique touches of their own to keep things interesting. Also, the soundtrack is incredible and it alone makes the game worth checking out. I wholeheartedly recommend it. You can grab a copy at

Afterburner Climax: I never get tired of Afterburner Climax. I've been a fan of the action-packed series since way back in the arcade days. Despite beating the game I still keep playing, it's not the striving for a higher score that keeps me coming back, though there is certainly some of that going on. It's actually just the zone the game puts me in when playing it. Getting the player to fall into this zone where he plays more by gut instinct is an inherent part of a lot of these seemingly simple arcade-style games. Thank god for downloadable content, as it has inspired a resurgence of these type of titles.


In the end, despite thoroughly enjoying most of these games, I felt sort of empty. Like that bachelor who no longer finds the myriad casual encounters he has with women fulfilling, I began to question the single life. Finally after some consideration I decided it was time to end my flirtations and once again settle on just one title.

The title I chose was Red Dead Redemption. My early impressions have convinced me that it is not only the best Western game ever made but perhaps the most refined open-world/sandbox game produced. The amount of polish and detail present within RDR is unbelievable. I know I said I would focus on RDR last week but as you can see I got sort of sidetracked. Look for my complete impressions next week.

Stray Observations:

* - I was blown away by some of the old Sega music. Is it me, or is Sega (despite the shitty soundchip in the Genesis) responsible for what are hands down some of the best video-game soundtracks of all time? Oddly enough it seemed like lot of those old songs from share a distinct style. Listening to some of the tunes in the various games, I was instantly reminded of songs in Outrun and Afterburner, which weren't even in the compilation. Disclosure: I left the title screen of Phantasy Star II cycling in the background during chores just so I can hear that kick-ass opening theme. Yes, I know I'm a nerd.

* Digital voice samples in old Sega games are the best things ever. Besides the already famous lines such as, "Welcome to your doom!," the sound a character made when dying in most games was just priceless. I never got tired of hearing the sweet distorted sound of that digital "ARGGGGHHHH" in games like Golden Axe and Streets of Fury. Especially the female shriek that sounds more like a seagull in its death throes than any sound a human being is even capable of making.

* Demon's Souls is so damn good I actually considered choosing that as my main game. There were a couple of factors regarding why I chose Red Dead Redemption. First, I wanted to play something other than an RPG since I just finished one. I also wanted something to provide me with a lot of those odd unexpected open world moments. I'm especially in a mood for something where I could just ignore the main quest and run around and do my own thing (something I had trouble doing with FFXIII.) The fact that it's a game a lot of other people are playing, talking and writing about atm also had a lot to do with it.

* Seriously SEGA!? I have to unlock games in the compilation? Seriously? Come on that's just silly. What a bad move on Sega's part.

* Hydorah has some hilariously awesome Spanish-accented voice acting.

* I spend way too much time playing poker in Red Dead Redemption.

* I'm also still playing Nethack on my iPhone but didn't mention it here since I just started up a new series called 'Nethack Adventures.' You can check out the first entry here. Look for another entry sometime this week.

Lazaro Cruz is still wearing his red Thriller style jacket from the 1980s but has long since cut his Jheri Curls. In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religion based on the principles espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at [email protected] or check out his twitter feed at   read

9:34 PM on 06.03.2010

Nethack Adventures: Argento The Knight Part 1

Nethack Adventures Issue #1: Argento the Knight

Introduction: I plan to make Nethack Adventures a regular feature which will focus on the adventures and inevitable death of a Nethack character.

Nethack has a tendency to astonish you with unexpected situations and events; sometimes it's hilarious, sometimes engaging, sometimes incredibly frustrating but it's always entertaining. Playing the game usually leads to plenty of "Holy shit! Did that Just happen?" moments that make you want to run out and share them with your fellow gamers. Hopefully every once in a while I'll have time present some entertaining blow by blow recaps.

First, some background.

Let me start by saying that I am a total new jack to Roguelikes. I recently started playing Nethack on my iPhone and have become really enthralled by the game. I'm fascinated by its seemingly boundless mechanics. Using trial and error you have to approach each scenario with a fair bit of deductive reasoning. In effect the game feels like an intricately constructed logic puzzle.

For those of you unfamiliar with Nethack or Roguelikes, they are turn based dungeon crawlers that date all the way back to the era of mainframe computers.

Here is a general definition of roguelikes from Wikipedia: "The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games characterized by randomization for replayability, permanent death, and turn-based movement. Many early roguelikes featured ASCII graphics. Games are typically dungeon crawls, with many monsters, items, and environmental features. Computer roguelikes usually employ the majority of the keyboard to facilitate interaction with items and the environment. The name of the genre comes from the 1980 game Rogue."

The ASCII graphics and keyboard commands sound like insurmountable barriers, and to be honest both things held me back from playing for a long time. Luckily the iPhone version does a lot to remedy this for new players like me. A lot of the commands are easily accessible from touchscreen menus. After playing it this way for a bit you learn your way around the interface and even typing them in becomes less of a chore. Before you know it you're pretty familiar with the commands and can easily transfer what you learned to the PC version.

As for the ASCII graphics, there are dozens of graphical tile-sets you can use to supplement the game. It seems to be frowned upon by other players to use tiles and a menu based system but I think its an awesome way for people to ease into the game and as you can see by the pics below it's what I use. If you're thinking about giving the game a shot I strongly recommend starting with the iPhone version if you have access to it.

The goal of the game is to reach the bottom of the dungeon (about 50 levels) retrieve an item and fight your way out back to the top. It sounds a lot easier than it sounds, I've been playing the game, a few sessions daily, for about 2 months and have yet to even reach lvl 10.

There is a lot to this game, I have barely scratched the surface myself. But don't worry too much about the details, despite its complexity it is actually pretty easy to pick up and play. I'll explain what I can as we go along, the rest will work itself out.

I'm sort of experimenting with the writing style so bear with me. Some parts of the post will be written from the character's in game perspective, in the style of an ultra cheesy fantasy novel. These sections will be in italics and easy to distinguish. I insist you imagine them being read by this man to get the full effect.


The majority of the post will include details and insight on my encounters. Hopefully it will inspire some of you to also give Nethack a try and share your own tales - at the very least I hope it provides some solid entertainment.

Since I took up so much time with the background I'll begin this post with quick introduction to a new character, cover some of the basics and only quickly go over the first 10 minutes or so of a game. Enjoy...

Issue 1: The Trials of Argento the Gallant Knight

Argento began to descend into the dungeon. But as he took his first few steps downward, he noticed that his pony, Bava was reluctant to follow. He grabbed the tether attached around his companions neck and pulled. "Come on you stubborn.." before he could finish his sentence he felt himself lose his footing and fell awkwardly down the stone staircase. His brand new designer set of armor made clanking sounds as he rolled down to his destination. He got up and saw his suit was dented and scuffed and before he could curse his luck he noticed his pony had finally decided to follow his lead. He swore he could see the resemblence of a grin on the animal's equestrian mug.

He looked around the room and was suddenly overwhelmed by a curious impression that he had been here before. Knowledge of countless lives which had long passed, memories of innumerable deaths, recollections of blood-filled battles and the faces of fearsome malevolent opponents suddenly flooded into his brain. A deluge of horrors! It was the first time he had set foot in this dungeon, yet its halls seethed with familiarity. Despite the strange acquaintance he found within, there were gaps in his recollection. The plotting of its paths remained a mystery to him, he would have to chart his own course. Argento grabbed his weapons, a gleaming steel lance and a freshly sharpened longsword, and strode forth with determination.

Permanent death and randomization are two essential elements of Nethack.

Every single game provides a new randomly generated dungeon, and some other important aspects, such as the color of potions (which makes them harder to identify from game to game), are also randomly assigned. However chaos does not completely reign within the game; there are also some static rules and if you know them and use them to your advantage they can help immensely.

I'll make no bones about it, any player even hardened ones will die often in Nethack. And unlike many modern games, death is always permanent. This means you lose all the items, experience and progression you worked so hard to acquire and are essentially being forced to start again from scratch. I know that sounds like a pain in the ass (and it is!) but don't fret, because all the knowledge you acquired on the way to certain death is extremely valuable. So while your new character may be starting at square one, you as the player retain all the hard earned experience which helps you progress deeper and deeper into the game.

A quick note about Knights and classes:
To make things even more complicated each class has their own distinct advantages and drawbacks. As you probably guessed by now, these aren't spelled out for you so each time you play a different class you also have to figure it out on your own by trial and can cheat and go to the indispensable resource: Wikihack. This is kind of cheap and I don't like to do it, but for the purpose of this column I'll be using it from time to time to present a better picture of the overall game.

The most important thing on there for the moment is this: "Knights can identify all weapons and non-magical armor from the beginning. They also have a special intrinsic ability to #jump like the knight piece in chess. They are able to #turn undead, and their special spell is turn undead. "

Ok, didn't know any of that, so will keep it in mind. The Knight jump seems especially interesting and might get me out of some heated situations.

Usually the first thing you want to do in a new game is check out what gear has been generated for your character. In the two screenshots below you can see the knight and his pet and the inventory screen. The knight usually starts with more or less the same gear but classes such as wizards and priests start with randomly assigned spell books and scroll.

Ok, almost ready to kick some ass, but before I start I want to rename my pony. So I open up a command menu type 'C', tap my horse and BAM a menu appears so I can rename him to Bava. Renaming your pet is a totally unnecessary action with no consequence but it took me weeks to figure out how to do it so make a damn point to do it everytime.

(Random Factoid: As some of you movie fans probably already guessed the Knight and Pony are named after two of my fave Italian directors, Dario Argento and Mario Bava.)

Argento looks around the room and sees a bag of gold and an open doorway. He looks over at Bava and smiles "HA! I expected to be welcomed by violence, instead I am greeted with gifts, this might not be so bad after all as the denizens of this dungeon recognize that my noble blood inherently makes me sovereign!" Bava grunted, and Argento was almost certain he saw it roll its eyes in a mock condescension. The knight was unfazed as he pocketed the gold and walked towards the doorway.

Turns 1-30 (Sometimes, I will put the specific number of a turn in parentheses within the description below so you can get a sense of how many moves I have taken.)

The opening room welcomes me with a sack full of 8 gold pieces. Cool, I grab the cash and head on my way. As I walk through the corridors I come across a locked door. I kick it down easily (26) and find myself in a room with a sword. I pick it up (30) and since my Knight can identify weapons (as stated in the wiki entry above) and instantly realize it's a katana.

I decide to look it up on WikiHack and get the following information:

"A katana does d10/d12 damage against small/large monsters, with a +1 bonus to hit. When unidentified, it appears as a samurai sword; samurai start with one.

The only differences between katanas and long swords are the +1 bonus to hit and the katana's 1d10 damage vs. small (as opposed to 1d8 for a long sword). Because the katana is the most damaging non-artifact weapon to use the long sword weapon skill, it is often a desirable off-hand weapon for two-weapon combat."

Looks like the katana provides a decent improvement over the longsword I am currently using. But there is another aspect I have to worry about. What if it's cursed?

Cursed items are littered with penalties and drawbacks and what's worse, if you equip a cursed item you are unable to remove it unless you find a way to remove the curse. Needless to say, if it turns out the katana is cursed then it will do a lot to weaken me in the crucial opening areas of the game. I know from past games that I can test to see if an item is cursed by a dipping it into a fountain and seeing if it glows black. I decide to play it safe and wait for my knight to come across a fountain.

A new challenger appears! Turns 52-273

After much exploring and wandering through empty narrow corridors and large barren rooms Argento finally comes across another living creature. He steps into a large room with a staircase leading down into blackness and notices to his surprise a dog faced creature staring at him from a few paces away. The manlike canine creature assumes the posture of sneering suspicion. Argento speaks, "Hail dogman! I, Argento, Knight of law and nobleman of the highest rank am here to command you and any other savages that reside within this domain, I beg of you to recognize your position and bow..." the kobold cuts off the speech and runs towards the knight with viscous barbarity. Quickly Argento draws his sword and thrusts the running beast in the midsection, lifting it off its legs and splitting it in half as its blood sprays all over, coating Argento's face and his shiny suit of armor with spots of deep crimson.

After some exploring, with no encounters to speak of I find my way to the room with the stairs leading to the next level. Even more exciting I find myself face to face with my first opponent. The ';' key is used to identify any object you see on your screen, so I tap the ';' key in the iPhone menu and then tap the beast to identify him, it is revealed to be a kobold. I am certain they are relatively weak, especially for a knight so I decide to engage him in battle. The fight ends relatively quickly as we take a step towards each other and BAM! One shotted! I dispatch him with one hit.

Even though the stairs to the next level are nearby I decide to explore the dungeon a bit more to see if I can acquire any more useful items.

Sitting in the very next room I find a 'Can of Grease.' First time I have ever even seen one of these in the game, I can't even begin to guess what it would be used for. I pick it up (70) and decide to look it up on Wikihack. The first sentence reads:

"A can of grease can be applied to grease any item. This protects them from rust and corrosion and also from grabbing attacks. A mind flayer can not attach its tentacles to a greased helmet, either."

Cool, not sure if it will be that useful but I hold on to it just in case.

The very next room finds me facing a lichen, which I easily dispatch with one swing of my sword (98) and move on. But suddenly things are less quiet and I find myself fighting frequently. First a newt bug(207) who actually manages to hit me for a point of damage before I squash it and a grid bug which I kill quickly (226)

After a bit more exploring I come across a room with a nice shiny new suit of ring-mail laying on the ground and a closed door near the far left.. I decide to pick it up so I can sell it to a merchant later but discover its weight encumbers my character. I'm not entirely sure what being encumbered does besides slow my movements and attack speed but I know it can't be good so I just drop it for now. (256)

Argento grabbed the door handle but found that it was locked as he pulled it. He looked at Bava and warned "Stand back you ugly mule - witness the strength justice bequeaths to a knight of my prowess." Argento took a step back and then rushed towards the door with a mighty kick...and nothing happened. He tried it again and again but the door stood. He wiped the sweat off his brow as Bava let off a loud sardonic "Hee-Haw." For a moment Argento, now nearing the limits of his patience, thought of stabbing his companion in the snout - but he quickly regained his composure when he realized that since beasts do not contain the capacity to mock, what seemed like scornful laughter was only coincidental. He turned towards the door and once again set forth to smash it.

Turns 274-280

Can you believe I spent 6 turns trying to kick down a door? Argento needs to step up his game. Ridiculous! Finally I succeed and move down a corridor where I come face to face with a gridbug who I kill (316) almost instantly. At this point I realize that Bava is nowhere around, and as I take a few more steps I get the message 'You Hear Some Noises." From experience, I know this means my pet is getting into a scrap and I've lost more than one pet this way in the past, so I head back the way I came to investigate. Almost immediately I bump into him in the room with the unbreakable door. Whew, good to see he's alive.

At this point it seems I explored level one as fully as possible so I head back to the stairs, wait a moment for my pet to catch up and make my way down. (336)

*****************LEVEL 2*********************

Once below I find myself in a small room with another bag full of 70 gold (341). I pocket the cash and move to the next room where I find a shield. I pick it up (364) and find it doesn't weigh me down. Cool, I can prob sell it for a nice piece of cash when I come across a merchant.

Turns 365-396

Now what happens next leads to one of those 'oh shit' moments.

I step into a long narrow room and begin to walk towards its far end, and suddenly I am transported to a whole different area. WTF!? A few extra turns seem to have passed without my knowledge and I find myself near a staircase heading downwards to level 3 and discover I am surrounded by 2 grid bugs who attack me relentlessly. My pet is nowhere to be found... so my knight must stand alone and handle the fight himself. He takes one swing and misses; both bugs attack and hit him.

Will Argento survive this battle? Will the mystery of what exactly happened ever be solved? Will he be reunited with his loyal pony Bava?

Stay tuned true believers all the answers will be revealed in the next installment of Nethack adventures.   read

5:15 PM on 05.31.2010

Rebellion, Resistance and Gaming

One of the things that bothers me most about Video Games is how they all almost universally embrace conformity.

Albert Camus, a well known novelist and essayist once said, "In the face of contemporary political society, the only coherent attitude of the artist, unless he prefers to renounce his art, is unconditional rejection."

Quick disclaimer: As you can tell by that quote this is going to be one of those really pretentious, over intellectual blogs. I admit it, I'm a nerd who over analyzes things and drops quotes like a lame Doctor Evil (PhD). But please don't let that turn you away; grab a beer, put your thinking cap on and stick with me for a bit. I think what I have to say might give you some food for thought, at the very least it will inspire you to make fun of me in the comments section below.

Besides you're not alone, like most readers I totally believe every blog post should provide at least a few seconds of thrilling, mindless entertainment. So without further ado check out this clip that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the blog:


Ok, now that that is out of the way back to the serious stuff...

That Elusive Feeling:

I don't want this to be another debate about whether or not games are art (let's just say for the sake of this post that they are and move on). But personally as a person who enjoys and appreciates movies, literature, art and poetry. I find that with those art forms, the ones that touched me most deeply are the ones that challenged my perception of the world. Just about every single one that has done that has done so by challenging the cultural norms and accepted conventions of their time. They might be highly regarded as 'works of art now' but at the time many of them were seen to be the pinnacle of depravity - dangerous books or movies that were censored, banned and criticized by the establishment.

We all know that feeling of having our life changed dramatically by a work of art, of feeling like you're no longer the same person after reading that certain book or watching that amazing movie. Of recommending it to our friends by saying "It changed my life!"

Don't get me wrong I love video games. Games have made some memorable impressions on me. Every year I am sure we all encounter games that are incredibly creative, fun and engaging. Some, like Bioshock and Braid, are also very thoughtful and carefully constructed - they provoke countless debates and conversations that rival those we have about many important books and films. Heck, I would even go as far as to say they are better than some books (I'm looking at you Dan Brown.) But none has provoked the sensation I have described above.

I'm saddened by the fact that video games have never even come close to giving me a similar feeling. Especially because of the fact that their interactive nature, the ability to suck someone into a constructed world with its own simulated rules and mechanics, provides the highest potential for instilling that feeling. Then why is it that they haven't fully capitalized on this potential?

The Spirit of Rebellion:

I recently read a very insightful essay entitled "Literature is Fire" by the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. In it he echoes the above Camus quote, and states that all important works of art are fundamentally rebellious in nature.

Vargas Llosa states, "...Warn (societies) that literature is fire, that it means non-conformity and rebellion, that the raison d'etre of a writer (creator) is protest, disagreement and criticism. Explain to them that there are no halfway measures: that society must either suppress forever that human faculty which is artistic creation and eliminate once and for all that that unruly social element, the writer or else embrace literature, in which case it has no alternative but to accept a perpetual torrent of attacks, of irony and of satire aimed at both the transitory and the essential aspects of life, and all levels of the social pyramid. "

Later he discusses the benefits provided by rebellious art:
"Literature can be useful to society only if it fulfills this condition. It contributes to human improvement, preventing spiritual atrophy, self-satisfaction, stagnation, human paralysis and intellectual or moral decline. Its mission is to arouse, to disturb, to alarm, to keep men in a constant state of dissatisfaction with themselves
The American reality, of course, offers the writer a true surfeit of reasons to be rebellious and discontented. Societies where injustice is law, paradises of ignorance, exploitation, blinding inequalities, poverty, economic, cultural and moral alienation, our tumultuous lands offer us exemplary material to reveal in fictions, in a direct or indirect way, through facts, dreams, testimonies, allegories, nightmares or visions that reality is imperfectly made, that life must change."

We can safely substitute any other creative art-form (such as games) for literature and the argument stands. Most creative works need that 'FUCK YOU!' spirit to thrive. Without it there is no incentive to question our conventional assumptions and revise our routine opinions. No impetus for us to stop and say, "wait a minute I never looked at things that way before." In short, no path towards that elusive feeling mentioned above.

But have any games with that rebellious spirit Vargas Llosa exalts actually appeared? And if none have, then why not?

Interlude: Ok things are getting a bit heavy there so time for a quick interlude. If you're one of the few peeps who are empowered with a Buddha-like patience and managed to make it this far. My friends, fellow gamers and internet denizens I present to you with the YouTube clip that will make slogging through all that nonsense worth it!


Was that a life-changing experience or what? Bollywood fight scenes are deep, son. Ok, now back to that other crap about rebellion.

The Main Problem:

I believe one of the most critical obstacles holding games back from achieving this defiant attitude is the dominant business-centric approach concerning their creation. Since the earliest days when developers sold disks in sealed plastic baggies, games have been for the most part produced for profit; by their very nature they have avoided doing anything that would threaten or isolate a potentially large audience. In honor of a fellow Dtoider I'm gonna call this...

The EternalDeathSlayer (EDS) Principle:

In a recent blog EternalDeathSlayer was spot on when he said the following, "...the gaming industry exists for one reason and one reason only: To make a profit. That's it. There is literally not ONE major publisher who is trying to change people's lives, enlighten anyone, or even make somebody happy. They could a rats ass. Even Valve wants to make as much money as they can, as they proved by making an (admittedly great) sequel to Left 4 Dead only a year after it came out. Some companies like Valve do care about fans, but even the support and care they show is all part of keeping customers around so they can spend more cash on the games they sell."

(I feel I have to mention EDS seems to have a very different outlook than mine when it comes to a profit centered approach to games, but even though I don't agree with his conclusions I do believe the above statement is pretty accurate. You can check out his full blog here.)

This principle of course runs counter to the Camus quote above. It undermines what I personally feel is the most important ingredient towards creating a meaningful work of art. The spirit of 'FUCK YOU.'

Think of the many counter cultural movements: Punk in the later 70s early 80s, the surrealists and the dadaists of the early 20th century, the No Wave musicians of the early 80s, Early Rock of the 50s, The New Hollywood movement of the 70s, The French New Wave of the 60s, The Italian Neo-Realists. Most of these movements were a rejection of accepted norms both in their respective fields (music, art, cinema) and of society itself.

The creative people in those movements were not motivated by the pursuit of profit, they were motivated by a spirit of rebellion. They wanted to shock the system, to change what was acceptable and to challenge conventions.

I look forward to the day when a game appears motivated only by the need to rock the boat, to insult and provoke, to shatter taboos, to tell us truths no one wants to hear. What Vargas Llosa describes when he says,

"Saying no, rebelling, demanding recognition for our right to dissent, showing in this living and magical way...that dogma, censorship and arbitrary acts are also mortal enemies of progress and human dignity, affirming that life is not simple and does not fit neatly into patterns, that the road to truth is not always smooth and straight, but often torturous and rough, showing time and again ...the essential complexity and diversity of the world and the contradictory ambiguity of human events."

But the EDS principle is hard to shake, nowadays games are extremely expensive to produce and the whole business framework seems to be set in stone. It makes sense to produce games that appeal to Lowest Common Denominator to ensure a recoup of the huge investment. The incentive becomes to create games that are focused on entertainment made with the intention to provide mindless distraction and constant satisfaction. Not all games follow the above paradigm, but unfortunately most do.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Many great and extremely creative games have come out of the business centered approach. Movies and books also follow this approach with some pretty effective and gratifying results. For every recalcitrant, culturally aware and subversive Lars Von Trier and Takashi Miike movie that's produced there are a dozen Iron Man and Transformer flicks made with the sole intention to entertain. But with games this dichotomy doesn't even exist yet. It's a one-sided deal - we are constantly bombarded with tons of games which are the equivalent of Iron Man and barely anything that aspires to be as intentionally seditious as the film 'Anti-Christ.' Maybe because of this, no game has yet arrived that was capable of giving me that intoxicating sensation of having my mind blown.

The game that "changed my life" has yet to appear, but I can feel it out there in the shadows, its subtle footsteps drawing closer. Somewhere in a suburban basement or perhaps in a Lower East Side Studio a group of maverick developers is at this very moment putting something together that will make Vargas Llosa and Camus' corpse smile proudly, as the tradition of resistance I handed down from one art-form to another. And the way we look at videogames will never be the same again.

If you made it this far, thanks for sticking with my overdone ramble. I look forward to hearing any thoughts and disagreements in the comments below. I may also follow this blog up with a few other sections if there is enough interest.

Lazaro Cruz once tried to join the Wu-Tang Clan but was kicked out because of his unpredictable nature. In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religon based on the tenets espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at [email protected] or check out his twitter feed at   read

2:46 PM on 05.30.2010

Now Loading: How I Ruined my Own Gaming Life and Blamed FFXIII for it

Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently engaged with, enraged at or totally perplexed by.

How I Ruined my Own Gaming Life and Blamed FFXIII for it

Readers of the last 'Now Loading' know that I put FFXIII aside for three months and was resolved to play nothing else until I completed it. I'm almost embarassed to say it took me less than three hours to finish the game once I picked it up again.

Like many other jaded fans, I initially missed the illusion of freedom provided by previous games in the franchise but after a few hours of play I actually warmed up to many of the changes. Despite some evident flaws, I really appreciated Square-Enix's willingness to experiment with the traditionally conservative JRPG genre.

Ironically, it was when I reached the open world areas which I pined for that I completely lost interest in the game. In previous entries, I blissfully spent countless hours completing all of the sidequests and discovering every obscure secret I could find. But in FFXIII I just didn't find this section as compelling, in fact I found it pretty damn boring.

In retrospect I can see now that there were two main reasons for this:

1. I was doing it wrong: I have to admit that I think I made a huge mistake in stopping to do all the open world quests. It seems, that unlike previous entries, XIII really wasn't designed for this. I suspect the intention was for players to first complete the story sections without stopping and then later to go back and finish the side quests. The fact that you're unable to utilize the final Crystarium grid (where you level up your skills) until after you beat the game reinforces this theory.

Where as in the other games it was an integral element of design, which besides offering some fun anecdotes and additional backstory, also encouraged the player to explore the world during the main quest in order to obtain weapons and secrets which would make the final sections of the game much easier. However, in FFXIII the open world segment seemed like an afterthought that was inappropriately jammed into the game to appease fanboys (like myself) who yearned for some of the more traditional elements.

2. The Open World section breaks the game: I think the flaws I mentioned in the previous article just became a lot more apparent and harder to deal with during the open world sections.

Originally I believed that the momentum which kept the game moving briskly forward did a lot to obscure those flaws. The fact is, I don't think I noticed them at all until the open world sections. The game seems to have been specifically designed with "long linear corridors" in mind, as long it stuck to that structure it felt engaging and gripping, but once it veered from that path it just didn't work.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Jorge Albor over at the Experience Points blog, convincingly described the game as embracing the casual play style of a Popcap game. If this is true, then the open world sections would work much better when played in short micro-segments and not in long binge sessions like I'm used to doing in most JRPGs. This would actually compliment the structure of the rest of the game rather then disrupt it.

I plan to give it another shot and work on the side missions the way they were intended to be played, in bite size chunks. We'll see how that goes.

Either way, I did enjoy the last three hours of the game and found the ending pretty satisfying, I only wish i had gotten around to it sooner.

Special thanks to all of the peeps who sent me some advice last week, it helped give me that extra push.

Final Fantasy XIII may have punched me in the face but in the end I emerged triumphant! (that sentence was just an excuse for me to paste this pic again!)

Other games: Honestly, I think I prematurely blamed FFXIII for keeping me from playing other games when in fact it probably has a lot more to do with the awesome spring weather and my current obsession with reading at least one book a week.

Despite finishing up FFXIII on Monday I have only played about an hours worth of Red Dead Redemption. However, I plan to do a shitload of gaming this week so I should have an article focused on RDR and possibly a few other games next week.

I'm still playing tons of Nethack on my iPhone, now that I 'get it' I think it's a game I'll be playing for years to come. I plan to write a separate blog focused just on Nethack sometime this week.

Lazaro Cruz is a former member of the fictional gang The Orphans who appeared in the 1979 film 'The Warriors'. In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religon based on the tenets espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at [email protected] or check out his twitter feed at   read

3:16 PM on 05.23.2010

Now Loading: How Final Fantasy Ruined My Gaming Life

Now Loading is a weekly column focused on the games I'm currently playing.

Final Fantasy XIII

I have owned FFXIII since March 9th. Since then I have barely played any other games. In fact I refuse to take on any other demanding title until I finally beat FFXIII.

To make matters worse, I have almost no desire to play FFXIII.

Here's what happened.

For the first two weeks I played it relentlessly. Even though I was somewhat disappointed with the game for many of the same reasons other fans have cited (doing away with the illusion of non-linearity and it's embrace of casual gameplay for instance.) Still, I was utterly driven by the promise of the game 'opening up' once I reached chapter 11 or 12 and continued to play. Despite some of my initial reservations, the game started to grow on me. The battle system really felt fun and the pacing (once the enormously long tutorial was over) even became brisk; I got used to the routine of slogging down a long corridor, fighting a few battles and then being rewarded with a very fancy, yet not frustratingly long, cutscene.

Then I crossed the threshold and made it to the mythical 'open areas' of the game. I sat down, grabbed my controller, and cracked my knuckles. "Here it comes," I thought to myself, "enough of this casual shit." I had finally entered in to the realms of hardcore JRPG geekery. I was ready to tackle countless side quests, discover untold secrets, get lost in a huge non-linear open world, take on some ridiculously challenging fights and test the mettle of this apparently complicated battle system that was somewhat wasted due to the games hand holding. I was about to experience the real Final Fantasy XIII!

Only, it didn't work out that way. Instead all of the games glaring flaws became even more apparent to me.

The open world, while pretty and flawlessly rendered, also revealed a (Adjective) lack of imagination. It became painfully obvious once I actually stopped being pushed forward by the game's manufactured momentum, that the visuals and environments - though spectacular to look at - felt workmanlike, dull and soulless. I can't even think of one area in the game that had a distinct personality. Nothing even came close to rivaling some of the memorable areas found within Final Fantasy IV (II), a huge setback considering FFIV was a 16-bit game that came out almost 20 years ago.

Likewise, the battle system that once seemed so intricate and nimble also fell short once I realized that I could beat just about anything by using the same attack pattern every time: First use buffs and debuffs, then magic attacks until mob is staggered, then relentless assault until dead - rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. The only time this didn't work was when my opponent would kill my entire party with one or two blows, it was pretty clear that I was just not ready and should come back after leveling up since no amount of strategy would help. Of course I also knew that once I got those levels, I'd just end up using the same exact pattern I always used for any 'challenging' opponents. This completely shattered the illusion of the highly touted battle system for me and actually made me miss the old turn based battles from the older games.

There were a lot of other things I noticed at this point that just really turned me off, but for the sake of conciseness, I'll just cut it short for now.

I have made many attempts to push forward and finish all of the side missions but it just feels like drudgery at this point. I end up doing a mission or two and just turning off the console and doing something else.

I find it impossible for me to really get lost in the game, the way I used to with many other JRPG's. I'm one of those insane dudes that spent countless hours playing blitzball, breeding chocobos and dodging lightning bolts in FFX and roamed the world looking for triple triad opponents in FFVIII. I'm that huge nerd that didn't stop playing FFVII till I beat all of the ultimate weapons. And it wasn't just OCD, I actually enjoyed doing that stuff.

Don't get me wrong, despite all of the negative comments I'm wiriting, I do not completely dislike FFXIII there is a lot stuff I did like. Oddly enough all of those moments happened before I got to the part of the game I was looking forward to the most. For some reason it's just not hitting the same addictive spot the past games have when it came to all of the sidequesting and secret-hunting.

But unfortunately, I am still an obsessive completest when it come's to my RPGs, hence my dilemma. I don't want to play any other games until I beat FFXIII, but I don't want to play FFXIII.

Am I getting old and cranky? Have I just lost my patience with JRPGs? Am I playing the game wrong?

I think the real problem is that I feel compelled to do all the side missions before moving on to the end game. It's been over two months now of playing the same game, running around the same plains, killing the same ol' creatures- so I think I need to get over it.

At this point I have a few options:

1. Force myself to finish up all the sidequests and beat the game.
2. Simply skip the sidequests and move on to the last section of the game.
3. Swallow my pride, realize that a series I have been playing since it's first inception just no longer (adj engages) and simply move on to play something I'll enjoy more.

I welcome any advice and suggestions from my fellow dtoiders.

Quick Interlude:

Though I haven't played anything else I sure as hell haven't stopped buying games - here is a quick list of games I've bought since I started playing FFXIII. They are all sitting patiently on my shelf collecting dust.

1. God of War III
2. 3-D Dot Game Heroes
3. Demon Souls
4. Red Dead Redemption

Before starting FFXIII I was playing through the God of War collection, since I was too busy with college when the first two GoW games came out. I was about 1/2 through God of War, but the fanboy love I have for Final Fantasy compelled me to set it aside until I finished XIII.

Other Games I've been playing on the side:

Even though I haven't committed to any other games I feel would demand a lot of time out of me, I have been casually playing some smaller games on the side.

Nethack (iPhone) - If there is one thing I can thank FFXIII for, is the fact that it has pushed me to play it's polar opposite. Nethack is the antithesis of this generation's Final Fantasy. It is unabashedly cryptic, intensely difficult, and thoroughly unscripted. It is not an easy game to get into: you have to be prepared to die often and do a bit of reading just to figure out how to do even the most trivial things, like renaming your pet.

The iPhone's menu-driven interface lowers the Nethack's bar of entry dramatically. There is no need to memorize dozens of keyboard commands which frees you up to focus on the meat of the game.

Needless to say I have become a bona fide Nethack junkie: I am having a blast learning the ins and outs of dungeon crawling, potion quaffing (Nethackese for drinking) and monster bashing. I have to admit I am still a rookie, making tons of mistakes and dying constantly. But I am also improving a bit each game, and every time I make it a bit farther into the dungeon or discover some new technique that makes things easier for my characters. I get a huge rush. This old little ASCII game provides thrills that rivals many AAA console games. So far my biggest accomplishment is making it to level 10.

Mega Man 9 - As usual I'm late to the party. Everyone has probably beaten Mega Man 10 by now and I have just recently started playing it's predecessor. I usually throw it on for a quick play session when I have some time to kill. I'm loving the nostalgia factor provided by the 8-bit graphics and the awesome chiptune music. I have it made through one level so far. Like I said I been only playing Mega Man 9 in short sessions. It is serving as a perfect palette cleanser in between games.

Afterburner Climax- I absolutely love this game. I have been a big fan of Afterburner series since way back in the arcade days I remember it was one the few Sega Genesis games I payed full price for back in the day and likewise I grabbed the PSN version the moment I saw it was released. There are some graphical updates and a few new features, like the bullet-time inducing climax mode. But underneath all that the game remains practically unchanged, and like Mega Man 9 - I prefer it that way. Another one I play in small doses when ever I have a few minutes to kill.

That's all for this week, I hope you liked the first installment of Now Loading. If you have any comments, questions or advice on how to improve my c-blog, please feel free to leave them below.

Lazaro Cruz is a wannabe revolutionary who is funding his battles against the tyranny of Postmodernism by writing inconsequential manifestos. H=In his free time he enjoys overdosing on trashy B-movies, siccing his dog on Mormon proselytizers that visit him at home and founding a new religon based on the tenets espoused within Kung Fu movies. You can email him at Lazaro.cruz00 (at) or check out his twitter feed at   read

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