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12:38 AM on 07.01.2011

The Cracks in the Dam: Operation Rainfall & Nintendo’s Neglected Fanbase

Say what you will about Nintendo, you have to admit they have one hell of a dedicated fanbase. Far more than either Sony or Microsoft, Nintendo has long enjoyed a surprisingly personal relationship with its fans, many of whom grew up on the company’s consoles and games. I’m one such fan, whom since the days of the NES has had the good fortune to own every generation of Nintendo console and portable. That kind of long history with a company’s products can create a very strong loyalty that is not easily swept away. Nintendo, for all of its achievements, has made some pretty poorly calculated mistakes. Through it all, the company’s fans have stuck with them, praising Nintendo’s storied history of innovation and quality.

This very dedication is what makes the events of this past week rather significant. When Nintendo repeated its refusal of plans to localize Xenoblade, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower in the United States, the company’s famously dedicated fanbase very vocally turned on them and rebelled.

It’s surprising to think that three niche Japanese games, which have received no attention in American media outside of enthusiast games websites like Destructoid (which has arguably given them the most coverage), caused this kind of a reaction. Don’t get me wrong, these games all appear to be very fun, interesting, and great for any JRPG fan to own. However, I’d argue that these three games are simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. This reaction is the culmination of the years of neglect that Nintendo is guilty of toward its fanbase.

(Before I go any further, I should specify that when I say ‘Nintendo’, I mean ‘Nintendo of America’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘Nintendo of Europe’. As far as I know, this article does not apply to its Japanese audience.)

It’s been a long time coming when you think about it. Nintendo has a history of not localizing or publishing games that do not fit what it perceives to be in the interest of the mass gaming audience. One of the most singular examples of this was Mother 3, the sequel to cult favorite EarthBound. Despite an entire community of gamers begging Nintendo for a stateside release and flooding their offices with all manner of Mother-related paraphernalia, Nintendo refused time and again to bring the game to Western shores. In recent years, Mother 3 has become a symbol of that which Nintendo will not promote or, usually, allow on its western consoles: the niche game. This is the game that, by design, simply will not sell on the level of Mario, The Legend of Zelda, or even Metroid.

Unfortunately for Nintendo, the niche game is what brings diversity to a console’s game library. The PlayStation 2 and, ironically, the Super Nintendo are some of the best examples of how niche games that don’t have wide appeal can become what a console is known for among its fanbase. While I love Super Mario World and A Link to the Past, those aren’t the games I think of when I think of how much fun I had with my Super Nintendo. I think of Chrono Trigger, ActRaiser, EarthBound, and Final Fantasy IV and VI. (Yes, there was a time when Final Fantasy was considered niche. I should add another disclaimer that I’m a fan of JRPGs. Remember, this is about niche games and that’s my niche.) Similarly, when I hear people reminisce about the PS2 on Destructoid, you know what game comes up the most? Persona 3 and Persona 4.

Unfortunately, Nintendo’s efforts to appeal only to what it thinks will sell reliably well to a mass audience has resulted in a rather bland and homogeneous offering in the past generation. It’s not a coincidence that, before and after this year’s E3, there was an omnipresent rumbling from gamers about the same-ness of Nintendo’s line-up. Super Mario. Legend of Zelda. Mario Kart. Star Fox. Super Smash Bros. With that line-up, I could very well be talking about the game line-up for any of Nintendo’s systems since the N64. Pikmin, by far the most neglected and niche of Nintendo’s own franchises, got a passing “yeah, that’s coming” after the presser was over.

The result of this is a disgruntled fanbase that is sick of its Wiis gathering dust and its 3DS’s sharing a disturbingly similar future. Nintendo’s refusal to diversify their consoles’ offerings is even more damning in light of the bland drivel that third parties have been shoveling onto them. This is the road that has led to Operation Rainfall, a surprisingly vocal movement that has utilized social networking to organize Nintendo fans that are sick of the company’s seemingly irrational refusal to give their most loyal customers what they want. Over the course of one week, they were able to boost an old listing for Xenoblade on Amazon (then titled Monado: Beginning of the World when Nintendo was flirting with bringing the game stateside) to the top of the games sales charts, above even Ocarina of Time 3D, and has kept it in the top ten since.

Despite this rather demonstrative statement of the fans’ intent-to-buy, Nintendo refused to release Xenoblade in the US. Even though it is already being translated and dubbed into English for European release. It has also declined to localize Pandora’s Tower and The Last Story, the latter of which has been garnering praise in Japan as one of the finest games ever created by Hironobu Sakaguchi, creater of Final Fantasy. (It got a 38/40 in the famously critical Japanese gaming publication, Famitsu.) As if the refusal itself weren’t bad enough, Nintendo did it on Facebook. No official press release. No statement from Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime, despite the fact that the gaming enthusiast press have repeatedly asked him personally about these games. On top of all that, it was flippantly a day late Nintendo originally said they would make an announcement.

The result has been a snowballing PR disaster for Nintendo. In just 30 hours, the Facebook post has received over 6,000 comments. Nearly all of them have been slamming Nintendo for its decision. What’s even more interesting is that these comments aren’t the poorly worded rants of irrational idiots like the kind that flooded the PSN Facebook page during the network’s outage. These are well-articulated expressions of frustration and disappointment from long-time fans, many of whom have said they are seriously reconsidering WiiU and 3DS purchases after being being loyal to the company since the NES, SNES, and N64 days. IGN ran an article today with just a few of the hundreds of responses its Nintendo-focused podcast e-mail and twitter account received from Nintendo fans that were throwing their hands up in hopelessness with the company they once loved. According to a recent tweet, Operation Rainfall’s followership has increased by 50% since the Nintendo Facebook post. They’ve been retweeting the frustration of Nintendo fans worldwide.

The cracks have started to show in Nintendo’s dam. Nintendo’s historically dedicated and personally attached fanbase have seemingly had enough of the neglect the company has shown them over the last generation. Despite cries for a much more diversified gaming library and new IPs, Nintendo has ignored them and simply strutted out sales charts at E3 press conferences. Hopes were raised when during the last E3 press conference they promised strong third-party support for the WiiU and a diversified gaming library that would be able to support a diverse audience. Sadly, Nintendo’s refusal to release a game that is already being translated for another region and has received the #1 sales position on Amazon due to pre-orders alone have shown that the company has no plans or resolve for actually keeping that promise. The result is Operation Rainfall and a fanbase that, for the first time I can remember, seems to be planning a retreat from their once-loved company.

If you don’t believe me, check out one of the many comment sources I’ve mentioned. Fans are actually complaining about getting a new Legend of Zelda instead of these three niche, relatively unknown, Japanese role-playing games.

When was the last time you heard a Nintendo fan lament about a new Zelda game?   read

12:06 AM on 06.08.2011

The WiiU: A Diverse Controller for a Diverse Gaming Audience (Including You)

Well, Nintendo has done it again. Following in the grand tradition of the DS, the Wii, and the 3DS, Nintendo has dropped something wholly unexpected on gamers during their E3 media briefing, despite the fact that everyone was expecting it. Regardless of your opinions of Nintendo’s efforts, you have to admit that with Nintendo, whatever they put out will cause a massive shitstorm in the gaming community. More than twelve hours after they revealed Project Cafe to the world, people are falling over themselves to try and make sense of what it all means, including yours truly.

Like many watching the Nintendo event, I was expecting Nintendo’s new console to be a return to the enthusiast gamer. The rumors and the mock-ups all pointed to the Big N coming back to their original audience with a high-powered system and a fancy controller that would promise nothing but hard-as-fuck Marios and Zeldas and Metroids as far as the eye can see. We were all prepped to hope that Nintendo was coming out with the GameCube HD. Hell, all the controller mock-ups we’ve been seeing for the last month all looked like monstrous Wavebirds with screens shoved into the face. Sure, motion controls would be kept around as a quaint legacy of these weird past few years, but for all intents and purposes, this was going to be the console that enthusiast gamers had wanted from Nintendo from the very beginning.

Needless to say, you could practically feel the disappointment of the entire gaming community when the new console was revealed to be awkwardly named the ‘WiiU’. In that second, Nintendo made it clear that they were not abandoning the gaming audience they had picked up these last few years. This new console would be a successor to the Wii, not the GameCube. It didn’t help when they first showed the controller, which looks like an iPad with joysticks, buttons, and a d-pad on the sides. Everything in those first minutes of the WiiU’s reveal screamed ‘casual gamer’.

… then came the montage.

If you’ve watched the video of Nintendo’s media event, you know the one I’m talking about. It looked like a typical Wii commercial. White clothing everywhere, bouncy yet calm music, a sterile living room. The WiiU controller being held in front of a TV as a slightly different way to do motion control. I admit it: I was shaking my head in disappointment. However, I kept watching because I wanted to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to see where they could take this.

As the montage kept going, I started noticing something. The WiiU’s users kept switching the TV screen’s image to the controller and taking it with them. People would go about doing stuff all over the room while using Nintendo’s odd controller the way that was best for their current situation. Playing a game on it so dad could watch a baseball game on TV. Using it to play a simulated boardgame between two people on a coffee table, which is much more intimate than on a big 42” TV screen. It was very subtle, but the sheer dynamicism and adaptability of the controller started to grab my attention. It was definitely a game controller, but at the same time, it had the flexibility and portability of an iPad. People were using this thing the way I’d seen people use tablets around the home... to play console games.

That’s when my jaw dropped. Holy shit, I thought. That’s what they’re doing. Everyone has been wondering how Nintendo would compete with the iPad and smartphones... and they’re not. They’re fucking incorporating them.

It’s like the old Borg saying goes: if you can’t beat ‘em, assimilate ‘em. Then possibly beat them.

At this point, I was definitely intrigued. I was now watching my computer screen with close analytical attention instead of detached disappointment. I watched Reggie and Iwata talk about Nintendo’s motive with the new controller, but there were enough of the company’s usual buzzwords that none of it really stuck with me. It was the same platitudes I’d heard before with the Wii.

… then came another montage.

This one was a series of sound bites from a variety of third-party devs. It was a lot like the dev montage we got during the 3DS unveil this time last year, so I initially rolled my eyes. We get it Nintendo, you’re promising third-party support. Like you did for the 3DS. Which we’ve seen so much of. Dev after dev voiced their praise of the WiiU’s innovation and it was all the usual suspects... until Ken Levine popped up.

Ken Levine.

The creator of Bioshock hasn’t minced words about his dislike of motion control and looked positively pained when he announced during Sony’s media event that his new game, Bioshock Infinite, would include optional PS Move controls. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Sony had likely offered to subsidize a significant amount of Bioshock Infinite’s development to the point where it would have been stupid of Irrational Games to say no.

And yet, here was that same man, positively fucking glowing about the WiiU. One of the Wii’s biggest detractors was praising the promise of its direct successor. If that wasn’t enough of a shock (oh I’m so clever), it was Ken Levine’s short bite that finally made me realize what the hell Nintendo was doing with the WiiU. All he said was he loved that he could play it where he wanted, including in his bed while his wife was reading a book or sleeping next to him.

That’s when it hit. This was Nintendo’s answer to one of the gaming industry’s biggest quandaries: how the hell does gaming adapt to the fact that their original audience, kids in the late 80s and early 90s, were now grown up and starting to have lives that took away from gaming? As their lives began more dynamic and their free time got divided into small chunks instead of large blocks, how would games adapt to fit them?

This was Nintendo’s answer: making gaming flexible enough that it can fit a wide variety of lifestyles. It is literally nothing short of giving gamers a console and controller that is as diverse as they are.

Suddenly everything in the opening controller montage made sense. People taking the controller with them throughout the room. Moving the game from the TV screen to the controller screen and back again. Using it as a touch controller, as a motion controller, and as a traditional button controller. Casual games. Hardcore games. Everything in between. The WiiU seeks to do nothing less than incoporate all current paradigms of control and gameplay into one portable, dynamic device and leave it up to developers and users to decide what is best for them. No more shoe-horning of motion control and no more stringent adherence to the standard joysticks and buttons. You can have both and everything in between. As Iwata said at the very beginning of the reveal when he announced the console’s name, it is up to you.

It’s genius when you think about it. In the last five years, gamers have become a wide and diverse spectrum of people, thanks to the Wii and the iPhone. What constitutes a video game and a gaming interface is now a much more open and complex question than it was a console generation ago. Nintendo learned first-hand during the Wii’s lifecycle that restricting the choices of the gamer and the developer only serves to alienate an audience, even if it serves to bring a new one into the fold. The WiiU is their answer to this problem: make a console that is as diverse as gamers themselves.

I’m truly excited by what the WiiU can do for gaming. There is so much potential, but there is as much for success as there is for failure. Nintendo needs to be extremely careful in how this is marketed and to ensure that the games released for the WiiU are as diverse as the audience it wishes to cater to. I am by no means convinced this will work, and so little is known about this console and the games that will support it that it is really impossible to say with any confidence how it will fare. Still, I’ve been a gamer for the last 22 years since the tender age of 5, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt. I think they’re onto something here, and I really hope it works. If the WiiU really does live up to its potential, all gamers will benefit, no matter their taste or lifestyle.


7:02 PM on 02.23.2011

Groundhog Day: Final Fantasy Four-Ever

Final Fantasy games are like sex: some will be mind-blowing, some will disappoint you, and you never forget your first one. I know I’ll never forget the first time I picked up a copy of Final Fantasy IV, then II in its simple yet seductive red box, at Blockbuster Video. That game totally rocked my nine-year-old world for three glorious nights. I rented it two more times before my parents gave me a copy of my very own for Christmas. Now with my own consistent save file, I blew through the game. (Note to the chillens: Yes, at one point in the distant past, save files stayed with the game cartridge, which made repeated rentals a risky affair for RPGs.) For several wonderful weeks, Cecil and company were my constant companions whenever I had a free moment. The game’s closing credits came all too soon... so I simply restarted the game.

I would embark on this journey at least fifteen more times over the next seventeen years.

To say that Final Fantasy IV has had a significant impact on me as a gamer would be an understatement; the game has affected my entire life. FFIV was the game that turned gaming from a simple childhood toy into a serious hobby and life-long interest. I have played every port and iteration of the game mutliple times, to the point where I know it like the back of my hand. If I’m walking around and my mind starts to wander, it’s very likely I’ll start humming the chocobo or overworld themes. Whenever I write fiction, I will inevitably find myself using songs from FFIV, among others, for writing specific types of characters and scenes. Oh yeah, the whole writing thing began, in part, as a the desire to create a story like that of FFIV. I am not being hyperbolic when I saw that this game was life-changing.

However, a game that is life-changing doesn’t necessarily mean it is worth coming back to again and again, especially to the degree that I’ve found myself returning to Final Fantasy IV. It seems odd that, of all the games I could choose to replay on a nearly annual basis, it would be one of the most linear and streamlined ever made. There are very, very few sidequests in FFIV and the player has almost no control over the development of the characters or the composition of the party. The player is walking down a very narrow corridor, but it's a very well disguised, beautiful, and entertaining corridor, filled with memorable moments and endearing characters. I dare say you could devote an entire season of Chad Concelmo’s “Memory Card” series to this one game.

I still feel a tinge of excitement when Cecil and Kain march out of Baron at the game’s outset with “Opening” playing in the background. I love how Rydia, after watching Cecil defend her from Baron’s soldiers, pauses as she lets go of the vengeful hatred she has for him and the sweet, delicate tones of “Rydia” begin. There’s the feeling of relief and accomplishment when Cecil finally becomes a paladin and achieves redemption at the summet of Mt. Ordeals (complete with the skin-tingling drumroll of “Paladin”.) Then there’s my absolute favorite moment, which is when Rydia returns as a fucking badass and rescues the entire party from Golbez’s dragon in what can only be described as “summoner smackdown”. She even waltzes in right when the most epic of Nobuo Uematsu’s battle themes, “Battle with the Four Fiends” starts up, thus kicking the badassery into high-gear.

You may have noticed that each of those moments was associated with a particular song from the game’s soundtrack. That isn’t a coincidence. Final Fantasy IV began my love affair with video game music and work of Nobuo Uematsu. Before there was easy downloading of music from the internet or digital music players, I was recording the game’s music on my Talkboy (that was the lovely recording device from Home Alone 2) so I could listen to it whenever I wanted. It has been a mainstay on every portable music player I’ve owned and is an album I’ve returned to time and again. Nearly every song on that album has become tied to a number of memories and emotions, and it’s one of the albums I go to when I need a song that’s “just right”, be it for writing inspiration or working out in the gym.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Square has done its level best to keep me coming back. It might surprise you to learn that Final Fantasy IV has no less than four different versions in the United States; not just ports, but versions with substantial differences. This is more than any other Final Fantasy game, except Final Fantasy I. Don’t believe me? Let’s count. There is:

1. The SNES version (original “easy version” in Japan)
2. The PlayStation version (original “normal version” in Japan)
3. The Game Boy Advance version (revamped translation and tons of bonus content)
4. The DS version (polygonal graphical revamp, new gameplay, voice acting, bosses have new tactics)

I have each of these versions and have played them multiple times. As if that weren’t enough, a fifth iteration is coming to the PlayStation Portable that contains another version of the original game (sprite graphics in the style of the PSP Final Fantasy I & II), the sequel The After Years that came out on WiiWare in 2009, and a completely new chapter that bridges the two games. This is being billed as the definitive version of FFIV, and I’d believe it except for the fact that every other version of the game I bought was billed as the definitive version! The worst part is that I already know I’m going to buy this. I want to play this interlude chapter. I want to see what the game looks and plays like with this new graphical interpretation (I really like pretty sprites). Square releases this shit for people like me who have never, ever been able to quit this game!

If this sounds completely ridiculous, I really can’t blame you. The only defense I can give you is that I keep going back to Final Fantasy IV because I grew up with it. This game influenced me more than I would like to admit and, as such, I feel a very strong connection to it. It came at just the right time in my life, when I was young enough to be affected by it but old enough that I would understand it. That’s why I return to it time and again and have this compulsive urge to own every version. I feel like I have this vested interest in what Square does to this beloved game of mine that they have seen fit to update and alter every few years. The fact that Square even sees fit to do this to FFIV, out of all the games in the series, is rather remarkable. I’m not the only person who can’t stop coming back to FFIV, because apparently Square-Enix’s own staff can’t stop either. I choose to believe that this is because this game really is something special and I’m far from the only person who was so deeply affected by it.

I hope I continue returning to Final Fantasy IV throughout my life. I hope that, one day, I will get to show my children this amazing game. Even if they see just a little bit of what I see in it, I will be overjoyed that such a connection exists.   read

8:02 PM on 10.23.2010

Game Dev Story: Be a Game Dev On Your iPhone


I have a very mixed experience with games on the iPhone.  I think I’ve downloaded about ten of the silly things and, until recently, only two held my attention for any length of Civilization Revolution and GodVille.  While the latter is more of a spectator affair you check along with your news feeds, Civilization Revolution is the only iPhone game I can confidently say I’ve lost hours to.  That’s because is fucking Civilization and, even then, it was mostly on long rides in a car or train where I didn’t have my DS.  With the arrival of the quirky Game Dev Story, however, I can now in all honestly say I am truly addicted to an iPhone game.

If you’re currently looking at your screen with a WTF expression, wait until you download it and find yourself playing it at 2 in the morning.     read

4:15 PM on 10.18.2010

Hideo Concert: The Quest for Epic Music Justice

The big event for Dtoid SF this past weekend was undoubtably the Destructoid Extra Life charity marathon that raised over $6000 for Children’s Miracle Network hospitals.  While Tactix, Hamza, and crew were busy being super amazing awesome at Dtoid HQ in this endeavor, the fabulous Stella Wong and I stepped out for a few hours to see Hideo at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.  The concert, which featured live music from an eclectic range of Japanese video games and anime, was rather unique for its incorporation of theatrical narrative and performance.  I’ve never really seen anything like it before and, since it was pretty amazing, Stella and I wanted to share what we could with you all.  On the chance that it comes to your area, make sure you check it out! Hit the link more to read about our experience at this awesome event!




4:01 PM on 08.03.2010

WIBP: Grinding in Dragon Quest & Life

If I had to pick one gaming genre that has defined me as a gamer, I would have to go with the JRPG. While I’ve loved titles that run the entire gaming gamut, from Super Mario Bros. 3 to GoldenEye, I’ve probably sunk more hours into JRPGs than any other genre. As such, I’m very well acquainted with the infamous gaming mechanic of the Grind, much to my own chagrin. I’m more of a story guy and, since I don’t have a lot of time to spend on games, I’m not someone who wants to wander aimlessly through an open field or trek the same dungeon repeatedly just to be sufficiently prepared to take on a boss. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be challenged, but I don’t want that challenge to be how long can I endure tedium in order to be able to have the right stats to survive a boss.

However, the recent release of Dragon Quest IX got me thinking about the Grind. I am both simultaneously pleased and disturbed that the game has accomplished what I thought to be an impossible feat: it has made me enjoy the Grind. Craziness, you might say! I agree! When I realized I was actually looking forward to turning on the game just to level up my characters, I was shocked and intrigued. It got me thinking what was it about Dragon Quest IX’s approach to the Grind that had yielded this result. It also started me thinking about what this means about Grinding in not just gaming, but in life. So pull up a chair, pour a beer, and learn how you to can learn to like the Grind.

As I said before, I hated the Grind whenever it would rear its head in games prior to Dragon Quest IX. In fact, it actually killed my interest in its predecessor! There was one point in the game where you fight a character that has been posited as the main villain (who knew if he really was though) and the difficulty just spikes through the roof for no reason. It was so obvious I would have to do some ridiculous grinding to get the right combo of skills and levels that I just completely lost interest. I haven’t picked the game up since.

Now along comes Dragon Quest IX, which (so far) has not elicited the same disappointed response from me. In fact, I actually look forward more and more to playing it. A quick comparison of the two titles yields some insight into what (for me at least) can make the Grind more of a joy and less of a chore. The first, and most obvious, is that the Grind should be optional. Demanding that the player remove themselves from the flow of the game’s narrative, or simply break the pacing that has been set for the game’s progression, is disruptive and inspires resent on the part of the player. However, giving the player the option to do so and making it worth their while is a different story. Dragon Quest IX offers the player an array of fun optional classes that are acquired throughout the game, but you have to start from level 1 if you want to switch to them. You can do just fine with the original six classes available at the game’s outset (at least far as I’ve gotten in the game), but if you want to get good at these new ones you’re going to have to deal with a little Grind.

This brings us to a second necessary component for an enjoyable Grind; lots of short-term gratification. It’s this aspect that makes me think Dragon Quest IX may have one of the most brilliant leveling schemes known to man. After a battle, experience points are divided up among the party members based on level. Higher-level characters get more of a share than lower-level characters. At first glance, I assumed this was simply to prevent power-leveling in the game’s multiplayer. However, as I began to experiment with newer classes (and therefore had some characters at Level Awesome and others at Level Noob), I realized it also had utility for a single-player party. Level Noob characters will still increase at a faster right if they’re in a party with Level Awesome characters, but the portioned experience mechanic makes sure leveling continues at a measured pace. Instead of giving you a rush of new levels at the beginning followed by a slow crawl, the game gives you a constant drip of leveling. Additionally, it also encourages the player to take the risk of actually progressing in the game with a party that contains a significant level disparity, since the player will want to get these lower level characters more experience offered from stronger monsters. That’s right: the game actually encourages you to stop the mindless Grind and instead try a more difficult, risky Grind.

Finally, it also helps that Dragon Quest IX is a portable title. It was a shocking move when Square-Enix first announced this break with tradition, but it has resulted in some fantastic improvements to the series. In addition to the multiplayer and wi-fi add-ons, it has resulted in a game that was designed to be played in shorter sessions. This includes the Grind! A Grind is much more enjoyable when it is done in bite-sized chunks. Instead of knowing that I’ll be sitting down for an hour or two to Grind away (hello MMOs!), I can whip out my DS when I’m waiting for my Double-Double at In-N-Out and go through a good amount of battling. The game can be picked up and stopped at a moment’s notice with the help of the game’s quick save feature, as well as the DS’ own clamshell pausing feature.

Anyway, as I was mulling all of this over, I realized that this says a lot about the Grind in real life. This is probably obvious to many of you, but for some reason I’ve only just now had this epiphany. When dealing with chores, errands or a job, taking the Dragon Quest IX approach can make a difference. First, it’s always better if it’s optional. I realize that may not always be an option (oh I crack me up), but if possible try and do the task when it’s most convenient for you or you feel energized for it. For example, I personally always do most chores and errands on the weekend, because it makes me feel productive. I don’t do them on weeknights because I already feel like I’ve been working away in the lab. I’m making the choice to do the task then instead of feeling like I have to.

Second, some sort of measured gratification for the task always helps. It’s that whole carrot-stick argument. Knowing that there will be some sort of feeling of progress (it doesn’t have to be a reward, per se) helps get stuff done. It’s one of the reasons, I think at least, why people find sticking to a diet or working out to be so difficult. You want results now, but it usually takes weeks for your waistline to start showing a real decrease or your muscles to have definition. On the flip side, it’s why people people will put off larger tasks for smaller ones, because the small ones can be done quickly and give one the feeling of progress. Therefore, giving yourself milestones that break up a big endeavor can really help. Just like in Dragon Quest IX, getting measured reminders over relatively short periods of time that you’re getting closer to your goal is going to keep encouraging you.

Oddly enough, as I was mulling over this entry, I saw an older article from Jordan Devore about an upcoming iPhone to-do list app called EpicWin, which essentially seeks to turn your real-life Grind into an RPG Grind. As such, chores and tasks that you do translate into rewards for your character, such as experience and items. It’s an interesting idea to use the mechanics that entice a player to do the Grind in a game to do the Grind in their daily lives. However, as Dragon Quest IX has demonstrated, there is a fine art to making the Grind less of a chore and more of a joy. I personally will be interested to see how much EpicWin makes me look forward to cleaning the bathroom.   read

12:14 PM on 07.23.2010

Fred Phelps, Comic-Con, & Why I Love Nerds

On the whole, nerds tend to get a bad rap when it comes to the way they are socially perceived. At best, we can be perceived as awkward, unfashionable, and socially inept. At worst, and unfortunately more commonly, we are seen as people who scream obscenities on voice chat and Internet message boards while hiding behind the veil of anonymity. The middle-school jackass calling everyone ‘fags’ on Xbox Live is sadly becoming synonymous with ‘video game nerd’ in popular culture. Thankfully, that is not the case in reality, as demonstrated by some fine folks at this year’s Comic-Con who organized a counter protest against the King Of All Jackasses, Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church.

In case you don’t know, Fred Phelps and his church spend all of their time running around the country staging protests that claim “God hates America” because we tolerate gay people. After all, according to Mr. Phelps, “God hates fags”. If that weren’t enough to convince you Mr. Phelps and his ilk are absolutely horrible human beings, they even conduct these protests at military funerals, claiming that “God loves IEDs”. (IEDs, or Improvised Explosive Devices, are one of the most lethal obstacles that soldiers face in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

It appears, for reasons I and most people don’t entirely understand, that Mr. Phelps and his church thought Comic-Con would be an appropriate place to stage their protest. Maybe God hates nerds too? Whatever the reason, members of the Westboro Baptist Church came to Comic-Con one morning to spread their message of hate and intolerance. They came to the convention center with their horrible little signs... and were met by one of the most wonderfully nerdy counter-protests ever seen. Comic Alliance has the story here, as well as a number of awesome photos and a great short video documenting the event.

As both a nerd and one of the “fags” that Mr. Phelps so desperately despises, I was extremely pleased to read this story this morning. Just in terms of humor the event is a nerdy treasure trove, with images including satirical protest signs from Bender (“Kill All Humans”) and Starfleet officers (“God Hates Jedi”). However, beyond the funny, this event has made me proud to be a nerd. These are the people that I love to be able to point to and say “See? Nerds are awesome and they’re not just stuck in their rooms playing games or painting action figures. They use their powers, knowledge, and wittiness for good too!”

I’ve been in a protest before, and it takes a surprising amount of balls and energy to do it. It’s not easy, even with a group of people, to walk out into public and start making a scene. On top of that, this fine group of supermen, superwomen, and robots, took time out of their fun convention schedule to do this. They could have just as easily ignored what was going on and attend a much more fun panel. Instead, they decided to take a stand against the hatefulness of Fred Phelps and his church, and in doing so demonstrated just how awesome nerds can be.

Nerdy counter protestors, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. This is why I love nerds, and it is why I love communities like the Destructoid community. It’s people like them and people like you who make being a nerd such an awesome experience.   read

3:02 PM on 07.22.2010

Distant Worlds in San Francisco

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of joining a number of Dtoid SF members for the Distant Worlds concert in San Francisco. Distant Worlds is a symphonic concert series that features music from throughout the Final Fantasy series. As such, almost all of the music that was played was composed by Nobuo Uematsu, who has composed music for twelve of the fourteen games in the series’ main cannon. I’m a huge fan of Uematsu’s work, so attending for me was a no-brainer. I’ve attended several “video game concerts” in the past, including Dear Friends, Play, and Video Games Live, and they’ve always been a real treat. The addition of the Destructoid community made it all the more awesome, and overall is was an incredible night. That said, while there were many things I loved about this showing of Distant Worlds, there were some things that I felt could use a little improvements. For what is basically a review with some musings on Distant Worlds, read on.

The Awesome: New & Different Songs

I can easily see choosing a song selection for Distant Worlds to be an incredibly daunting task. The Final Fantasy series has an impressive catalogue of music and contains an exceptional number of gems. Even if one doesn’t like a given game in the series, there is bound to be at least a couple songs from that game which will strike one's fancy. On top of that, one has to make sure that the selected songs are representative of the series and that the playbill remains balanced and diverse. Finally, there are the expectations and hopes of the audience members that their favorite songs will make the cut.

Overall, I think that the organizer and conductor of the concert series, Arnie Roth, did a good job. I’m glad that Distant Worlds is finally starting to break away from the predictable selections. First, I was thrilled that a vocalist was put to good use to showcase ballads like “Memories of Life” (FFIX), “Suteki Da Ne” (FFX), and “Kiss Me Good-Bye” (FFXII). This alone makes Distant Worlds stand out from other video game concert series, even Dear Friends, which shied away from using a singer. The singer for the SF production, Susan Calloway, did an exceptional job, equally and at times even surpassing each song’s original vocalist. I also appreciated that songs which haven’t seen as much life in orchestral form, such as “Dancing Mad” (FFVI) and “J-E-N-O-V-A” (FFVII), were featured. Finally, the concert also took advantage of the recent release of Final Fantasy XIII and the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XIV to add some of their songs into the program as well.

The Not-So-Awesome: The Old Standbys

Despite the number of new and new-ish songs on the playbill, there were some songs on there that I feel have long since worn out their welcome. The fact that they’ve become “old standards” in the short time that video game music has enjoyed symphonic performance in the US is a testament to how much they’ve been overplayed. The two big offenders are “Aeris’ Theme” and “One-Winged Angel” (FFVII). Don’t get me wrong, they’re great songs, but by this point everyone has heard them in this form, and it’s time they moved over for other, lesser known pieces. I was also going to include one of my personal favorites,“Theme of Love” (FFIV), in this over-played, but it actually got bumped from the performance on the night I was there.

What would I like to see in their place? More retro pieces from the SNES and NES eras. These are songs that, even if you know them, would still remain new to the audience since they were likely never played with even a synthesized symphony. On the off-chance that Arnie or Eric Roth is reading this,I'd suggest songs like “Rydia’s Theme” (FFIV), “Ahead on Our Way” (FFV), and a medley of music from Final Fantasy III (the battle themes from this game would be amazing played by a symphony!).

The Not-So-Awesome: The Organ in “Dancing Mad”

The two most notable songs of the evening were easily “Dancing Mad” and “J-E-N-O-V-A”, the former because it was a world premiere that took advantage of the hall’s massive organ, and the latter because it was a very interesting and fresh interpretation of the song.

Alright, so at least one person I know from the DtoidSF group is going to kill me for saying this (I'm sorry Stella!), but... I thought “Dancing Mad” could have been better. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part it was a great interpretation. I also understand why the entire song wasn’t played (the original is ten minutes long and they would have had to hire an electric guitarist just for it). That’s fine and I think those were great choices to make for this arrangement. My big, and really only, problem with “Dancing Mad” was with the organist.

I’ve heard this song countless times, both in its original version and the incredible Black Mages version. Given that, I’m pretty damn sure that the organist was constantly off-beat. I don’t know if it was a limitation of the hall’s organ, if it was a latency issue (the organist was in a room next to the symphony), or if the organist was just not that great, but he was always off just enough that it was constantly noticeable. I remember during his part, my smile started turning into a very concerned frown. It was just a big blemish on a song that was otherwise an incredible experience, made all the more so by the fact that the organ is the freaking star of that song in a live setting.

The Awesome: The Symphonic Version of “J-E-N-O-V-A”

“J-E-N-O-V-A”, on the other hand, was mind-blowing. This arrangement utilized a number of elements to convert it from its original, electronica-sounding version to a new symphonic one, including a mean drum line. Talking to other members of the group after the show, I got the impression that reviews on it were mixed. I personally loved it and I think it is the exact type of song that shows like Distant Worlds need to be incorporating more of in the future: songs that are fresh, new interpretations that give the audience something that they can’t get anywhere else, either in the original game or in one of the other video game music concerts that have been sprouting up in the last few years. This song was proof positive that just because a symphony is playing the song doesn’t mean you won’t get super psyched up by it.

The Not-So-Awesome: Selling Final Fantasy XIV

The only really cringe-worthy moment of the show came when it was time for a medley from Final Fantasy XIV, Square-Enix’s upcoming successor to Final Fantasy XI. The music itself was fantastic and, as the newest work from Nobuo Uematsu, was a testament to the fact the man has not lost his touch. The video shown along with the music was largely the trailer that has been shown since E3 ‘09, which was fine. It’s the footage people have seen and the game hasn’t come out yet.

What wasn’t fine was the very awkward reminders that kept coming from Arnie Roth about the fact that the game's approaching release date. Both before and after the medley, Mr. Roth made sure to remind us that the game was now in a beta form we could all sign up for and that the game’s final release date was fast approaching.

Now, while I understand that there is advertising value in this event for Square-Enix, there are two problems with this. First, I paid money to see this event, so I don’t think I’m obligated to listen to advertising. It would be one thing if this concert was free, but my wallet can assure you it most certainly wasn’t. Second, it just made that whole part of the concert feel cheap. For that (albeit brief) moment in the show, it had gone from a classy concert and gathering of people to appreciate the aural achievements of Final Fantasy to an E3 media event hall.

Thankfully, this was the one bit of tacky advertising that was to be endured. It didn’t even approach the egregious transgressions committed by Video Games Live, where nearly every song from a current game franchise had some sort of incredibly tacky advertising announcement accompanying it.

The Awesome: Everything Else

Despite the specific critiques I’ve mentioned, I really enjoyed Distant Worlds. What I’ve talked about here are the few items that the show could use some improvement on. Everything else was fucking awesome. Save for "Dancing Mad", every song was played perfectly and with real emotion. I know that the symphony’s performance of “Dear Friends” (FFV) really pulled at a few heartstrings. The acoustic guitarist was incredible. On the other side of the spectrum, both battle songs from Final Fantasy VIII, “Man with a Machine Gun” and “Don’t Be Afraid” really got the audience moving and helped keep the energy up in the concert hall.

If you have even a passing interest in Final Fantasy music, video game music as a whole, or the work of Nobuo Uematsu, you should see Distant Worlds. The show isn’t perfect, but it is by far the best video game concert in town. If you can make it to a Distant Worlds show (their venues seem to be limited to large international cities and the coasts of the United States), then you should definitely pick up a copy of the new Distant Worlds CD. I believe Destructoid’s Dale North gave a very high recommendation of it a few months ago.

Oh, and Nobuo Uematsu really needs to sit in another part of the concert hall when he visits. Like in my box. Next to me. So I can totally scream like a little school girl the entire time.   read

5:53 PM on 07.16.2010

WIBP: Time Travel in Chrono Trigger

Time is quite possibly the most precious commodity on the planet. It may be the one thing that everyone wants more of, especially when you have a job. (And yes, I’m totally calling grad school a job, and all of you working professionals that disagree can suck it.) I’d love to have more time, especially because it would mean I get to play more games. I tend to juggle several games at once and, on top of that, I have a thing for JRPGs and like to revisit my old favorites. As such, I realized that if I did a weekly ‘here all the games I’ve been playing’ entry, it wouldn’t change a whole lot from week to week. Therefore, I thought it would be cooler to pick one of the games I’m playing each week and do something more in-depth and thoughtful about it than a simple review.

Given that intro’s preoccupation with time, JRPGs, and games I like to revist, it seems fitting that the first entry in my "What I've Been Playing" (WIBP) series concerns Square’s seminal classic, Chrono Trigger.

This is hardly my first time playing this amazing game. In fact, this may be closer to my tenth. I know, I have a problem; I seem to love playing really good games. It’s a condition I deal with one day at a time. However, despite loving Chrono Trigger as much as I do, I actually wasn’t getting the itch to play it again before this current runthrough. I had been planning on dedicating my time to finishing Persona 4 so that I could play Persona 3 Portable. However, the lovely folks over at Fangamer decided they were going to have a Chrono Trigger Fan Fest. I looked over at my copy of Persona 4 (and my receipt for P3P), apologized profusely for my false promises, and promptly slotted Chrono Trigger into my DS. The sounds that accompany a new day dawning in the Kingdom of Guardia, the cawing of seagulls and Yasunori Mitsuda’s melodious opening chords, are no less exciting the tenth time around.

Honestly, the things I love about Chrono Trigger could fill numerous blog entries. This game is definitely among my top favorites of all time, not only for its quality but for the impression it left on me. There is no denying that the first time was the best, but it’s amazing how much I enjoy playing this game 15 years and numerous playthroughs later. There are so many reasons why this game should be old hat for me now, and yet there are many more that explain why it isn’t. However, given that this is a blog entry and not a dissertation (though wouldn’t be it hot if I could get a PhD for that!?), I’m going to limit myself to one notable aspects that came to mind during this particular outing: the game’s treatment of time travel.

The fact that the story of Chrono Trigger is so well-loved and understood is an achievement in and of itself, because time travel is a notoriously difficult subject. Not only does thinking about it too much cause headaches and even the most experienced of time travelers to wave their hands in futility while muttering nonsense phrases like “timey wimey”, time travel is a (currently) purely fictional phenomena. There are really no set rules governing it and humanity generally has no real concrete intuition for how it would work. Video games, and fiction in general, have a long history of time travel stories that make little-to-no sense, are overly complicated, and can be littered with plot holes large enough to store the Gulf oil leak in. In fact, one need look no further than Chrono Trigger’s sequel, Chrono Cross for such an example. There are entire websites dedicated to deciphering the temporal paradoxes that game described, some outlining more than ten different possible timelines.

(Actually, whoever was able to get this far should be given a freaking medal.)

Yet, the story that Chrono Trigger weaves is beautiful in its simplicity, despite the fact that throughout it the player is jumping back and forth between no less than five eras (six if you count the Day of Lavos). I was struck by this during my current playthrough, mostly because the translation in the new DS version contains several new bits to better tie its narrative to that of Chrono Cross, and it made me wonder why Chrono Trigger was so successful at something that its sequel and many other games have utterly failed at. (Please note, I am not saying that Chrono Cross had a bad story. I am saying that just the portion specifically relating to time travel and temporal paradoxes was awful.)

The simple answer, I believe, is that Chrono Trigger isn’t actually primarily concerned with time travel. “What!?” you may exclaim, “Of course it’s about time travel, you crazy person! The title of the game even has ‘Chrono’ in it!” Yes, you’re right, it is and it does. However, what I mean by that scandalous sentence is that, instead of trying to create a game that is entirely about time travel, the developers of Chrono Trigger created a game that was about a memorable cast of characters from different places, and instead of calling those places ‘kingdoms’ or ‘worlds’ like most JRPGs, they called them ‘eras’. In short, Chrono Trigger merely uses time travel as a method to move the player around five entirely different and unique places. Time travel, in Chrono Trigger, is merely a plot device to connect characters and events among these five realms, and is itself actually plays a very minor functional role.

I should note that my intention is not to “open your eyes” or “shatter the illusion”. Actually, I think this was an ingenious conceit on the part of Chrono Trigger’s Dream Team. Think about it: how much interplay is there between the five eras of the game? Most of the eras merely serve as backdrops for the stories of the game’s characters. The wild Ayla comes from the untamed jungles of Prehistory, chivalrous Frog and conniving Magus fight in the strife of the Middle Ages, confident forward-looking Marle and Lucca hail from the optimism of the Modern era, and innocent Robo shines amongst the hopeless ruins of the Future. These eras have very limited player-involved interconnection, save for some simple character interactions and puzzles (one of Marle’s ancestors disappearing from the Middle Ages, the sealed boxes, and a number of small endgame sidequests). I qualify it with “player-driven” because while there are several major ways the eras all interconnect, mostly through Lavos and Antiquity’s Kingdom of Zeal, the player and his or her time-traveling ways have absolutely no impact on them. In these instances, such as the destruction of Zeal in Antiquity and Magus’ failure to defeat Lavos in the Middle Ages, the player is simply watching the backstory of the world and its history. Again, time travel serves as little more than a plot device to connect the characters and events. What gameplay impact time travel has in the game is very minimal and is limited to minor puzzles and quests.

So what can be taken away from all this, assuming I’m not just talking out of my butt? After all, this is just one man’s theory and opinion. Well, personally, I think it demonstrates how important the concept of illusion is in a video game. The fact that the player is time traveling, and having any impact at all (even if it is minor), gives the player an incredible feeling of control and freedom. However, the actual effect of the player’s time travel is wisely kept to a minimum, thus ensuring that the story’s complications are also kept to a minimum. After all, the story of Chrono Trigger is actually incredibly linear, following Square’s SNES tradition of linear storiues with a bunch of optional sidequests at the end. This use of time travel is incredibly subtle and sophisticated, and is just one of the reasons why Chrono Trigger is such an amazing game.

In the end though, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the player becomes aware of just how much impact his or her time travelling is having. What matters is that I know, years from now, I will still be excited by the cawing of gulls, because it means I will get to jump into a Time Gate and see some very memorable faces once again.

Oh, and one more thing. If you’re a fan of Chrono Trigger, which I imagine you might be if you’ve read all the way to the end of this, you should totally go check out the hot new CT-themed items that Fangamer is now selling as part of their CT Fan Fest! They are quite hot.   read

11:19 AM on 07.10.2010

Gaming for the Grad Student: Bits of Sanity

With this post, I'm finally taking a long-thought-of-but-never-really-attempted dive into the Destructoid blogging community. I've been a member of the Destructoid community for a few years now, but I've never really been that active. However, I really enjoy talking and writing about video games. The problem is that most of my friends outside of the interwebs are not gamers, so they really couldn't care less about my thoughts on motion gaming, the character of Kanji from Persona 4, the comparisons of retro gaming to modern gaming, and everything in between. That, gentle reader (or maybe even plural readers, if I play my cards right!) are what you are here for. You like video games, and you probably like reading about them or else you wouldn't be here.

I guess since this is the intro post to this experiment, I should tell you a little about myself. In addition to being a life-long gamer (Nintendo had me at 'Super Mario Bros.' at the tender age of four), I'm also a graduate student. Graduate students, to paraphrase Marge Simpson, are people who have made a poor lifestyle choice: to pursue an education past a bachelor's degree. I kid, I kid. I actually kind of enjoy it, and I'm in one of the most miserable communities of grad students: the chemist.

Part of the reason why I enjoy my life at the moment, though I wouldn't mind being given my doctorate right now so I can't make what grown-ups call 'cash monies', is that I have a number of pastimes that keep me sane and give me a reason to get my shit done so I can get out of the laboratory when the sun goes down. I work out, I do karate, but most importantly, I game. The fact that I'm still an optimistic, emotionally grounded individual after five years of graduate school is, in no small part, due to gaming.

Gaming is many things to me. At its surface, it's something I can do to relax. It's fun, it's engaging, and it's something I can do while drinking a beer. (Oh yeah, forgot: beer has also helped keep me sane.) However, there's far more to it than that. Since it's been a life-long hobby, gaming helps keep me connected and grounded to where I've come from. It's also provided me with a great shared subculture with other people. There are few things as awesome as going to a party where you don't know anyone, but a piece of gamer attire or a small gaming joke suddenly launches an hour-long conversation with a complete stranger because you happened to play the same game ten years ago or ten minutes ago. Finally, it also gives me something to think about while I'm waiting for the laser to warm up or the cells to lyse and die. It's something my brain can go to when it just can't take any more science.

So why should you care? While you're most likely a gamer, odds are you aren't a graduate student. (And if you are, we really need to share war stories over a beer and a DS.) Well, you should care because nothing I've said here about how gaming relates to my life is really unique to being a graduate student. Every one of us has a 9-to-5 (or in my case, an 8-to-6, and I'm one of the lazy ones). Maybe we love it, maybe we hate it. Regardless, when life is getting us down or making us feel lonely, gaming is something we use to keep our head above the rising tide. It's emotional, it's thoughtful, it's social, and sometimes it's just plain fun.

With that, I believe I should cut this off. I hope that you enjoy reading what I will hopefully be posting here in the future, or, at the very least, I hope it provides a much-needed bit of procrastination and sanity.   read

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