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Prince Ghidorah's blog

8:15 PM on 08.30.2008

Why I'm not Mad at Nintendo (or Sega) at the Moment

I should, by rights, be lining up with all the other haters to wee wee on Nintendo. I still can't find a Wii Fit, Wiiware has gone from quality initial offerings along the lines of Lost Winds and My Life as a King to Fraternity Games and Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the Wii release schedule for September includes such gems and future classics as Zoo Hospital, Ten Pin Alley 2 (there was a Ten Pin Alley 1?), and The Price Is Right (sans Barker no doubt). Still, I'm happy as a clam for one simple reason: Samba de Amigo!

I was wary, at first. I've been burned by rhythm games in the past for one simple reason: crappy localization. While overseas I bought a Japanese copy of Taiko Drum King and it was awesome; packed with crazy Japanese punk and disco and techno and kid's songs that perfectly fit the vibe of the oh-so Japanese festival fun onscreen. Then I caught wind of the U.S. release of Taiko Drum King; Britney Spears? The B-52's? Where are The Blue Hearts? The Doraemon Theme? I'm no industry insider, I have no data at hand, but I suspect that a good number of the people who buy these games do so for the wacky, over the top Japanese pop culture kawaii desu ne nature of the games. They don't want a slice of pure zany Japanese pop culture joy bastardized with some old guy in Namco's Seattle field office's idea of what it is the "kids today" are listening to. They don't want Nickelback in their Taiko Drum King!

Apply the above criticism to the localization of Elite Beat Agents (U.S. Release = Hoobastank, Avril Lavigne), any of the U.S. versions of DDR, etc. and a shameful pattern of ill-advised localization emerges. So, I was pleased to see that while the song list for Samba de Amigo is not chock full of Japanese pop fun, it does work with the fiesta/carnivale theme of the game. Gypsy Kings, Tito Puente, Harry Belafonte, Los Del Rio...that WORKS. Sega Gets It! Sure there's a Rhianna track and they brought back that Chubawubba song from the original game, but...Charo!

cuchi-cuchi!   read

6:17 PM on 08.27.2008

The Flow of Shmups: Ikaruga v.s. Yoga

I recently came across the concept of Flow, a term coined by Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentimihaly (don't ask me how to pronounce it). The always reliable Wikipedia lists a number of hallmarks of the Flow experience which include: A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness. A distorted sense of time, one's subjective experience of time is altered. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself. Essentially, there is a dilation of time, a sense of almost automatic control over the activity, and a melting away of the duality between the actor and action.

Most of Csikszentmihaly's examples involve athletes and musicians, professionals whose work involves the repetition of a particular task (dribbling a football, playing a piano) to the point where the task itself becomes automatic, i.e. muscle memory takes over and self-conscious thought falls away. Now, athletes and musicians who reach a level of accomplishment wherein the flow state is well known to them are celebrated in our culture. The guy who does an amazing Ikaruga speed run and posts it on youtube? No multi-million signing bonus or headline performance at Carnegie Hall for him. But they all got there the same way, by "overlearning" or practicing something obsessively until it is not merely mastered but completely automatic.

The philosopher Zhuangzi held that there was essentially no difference between someone who masters a musical instrument, a religious ritual or whatever skill set was regarded as socially useful in his or her culture, and someone who practices catching cicadas on a pole or butchering oxen until it becomes a pure meditative experience in which all dualities are erased. The point isn't the outcome or the nature of the task, the point is the achievement of that rare and ineffable state of mind.

So the next time that your significant other gives you grief for being absorbed in a Shmup for hours on end or trying to achieve a perfect run-through of Super Mario Bros. just tell them that you are following the Tao and erasing your ego duality.

Link to the ox butchering story...   read

10:09 PM on 08.24.2008

Super Dodgeball Brawlers is Awesome

I only ever play my DS in order to kill time on the bus or at the airport, so I don't really keep up on new releases but I do pick up a game or two whenever I know that I have a lot of travel time ahead of me. So, when I went to pick up Space Invaders Extreme (which is excellent) I happened upon Super Dodgeball Brawlers. Although it is an update/remake of one of my favorite games ever, I had no idea of the games existence.

If you've ever played the NES Super Dodgeball then there isn't much to say about this game as it retains the look, play, and wacky humor of the original. It's the kind of game that is ideally suited to the DS; you can pick it up for a quick play if you want, but it has enough (just enough) depth to keep you interested for more than fifteen minutes.

Unlike the NES original, there are a number of added play modes and pre-match option screens; you can buy power-ups a la River City Ransom and substitute teammates. I could have done without these elaborations, especially the ability to punch & kick and use weapons. In my opinion, they just distract from the core gameplay. Fortunately, you can switch them off so I can't say that the additions detract from the game as a whole. That makes all the difference. To me, this game is a fine example of how developers should handle a classic property; throw as many bells and whistles as you want on top of the game, just let me turn them off on the options screen.

The ice cold glare of determined world-class dodgeballers.   read

4:35 PM on 08.24.2008

Reboots that Failed: Nights: Journey of Dreams

Like many gamers who grew up in the 8 and 16 bit eras, there are a number of long neglected properties that I'd love to see given sequels: Strider, Alex Kidd, Star Tropics, Phantasy Star (that online nonsense doesn't count). But when it comes to bringing back old or long neglected franchises, there is a right way and a wrong way to tap into gamer nostalgia. Contra IV, Bionic Commando and Megaman 9 (I hope) do it right; they look, feel and play much like the games we know and love. It's as if they were sent forward from an alternate 1988 by some NES loving Marty McFly.

When it comes to doing it wrong, nobody can touch Sega. Remember Altered Beast? It was a shallow but fun Genesis side scroller that involved punching monsters in ancient Greece, turning into a werewolf and then punching more monsters. They made a sequel for PS2 a few years back that never made it to the States. I've played it. It was awful. Werewolves aside, it also had precious little to do with the original game.
Remeber Shinobi? Sega brought him back a few years ago for a thoroughly forgettable
3-D adventure. The less said about any Sonic games made after the Genesis era the better.

So against my better judgment I bought NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the Wii on the basis of my love for the original. The first NiGHTS, which came out for the Saturn back in 1996, was a simple but unique on-rails platformer (kind of) in quasi 3D. Gameplay consisted of flying through gold hoops, avoiding obstacles and beating a time limit in order to advance to a boss fight. It doesn't sound terribly involved, and it wasn't. But it was fun. It looked great (for the time), had wonderful music, and, I can't emphasize this enough, felt fresh and totally unique. It was the work of Yuji Naka at the top of his creative game and it shows.

It should have ended here.

The people responsible for the Wii sequel (a group that does not include Yuji Naka) looked at the simple but addictive arcade styled gameplay of the original and decided that it should be relegated to a minor role.

See that owl? He just keeps talking, and talking...

In Journey of Dreams each level is divided into five sections of which only the first and fifth are reminiscent of the original game. Each level begins with a ring chase which plays just like the original (with the addition of poorly tacked on Wii controls) and ends with a boss fight. Wedged between these slices of fun are three slabs of awful. There's a kayaking level that plays like a poorly designed Mario Kart track, some truly dull on-foot platforming, and a whole lot of cutscenes. Long, unskippable cutscenes. I remember the original games as having only the barest trace of a plot; two kids fly around as a purple jester while they are dreaming and thereby save dreamland, or something like that. The sequel has much the same story only now the particulars are spelled out in excruciating detail by a talking owl who drones on and on.

As a whole, the game isn't awful. It certainly isn't the worst thing on the Wii, and at least they didn't give NiGHTS a poochy styled Shadow the Hedgehog makeover. It isn't set in a post apocalyptic dystopia or anything like that. So the tone feels right, but the game as a whole begs the question of why designers would steer clear from a winning formula and deliver a sequel that all but ignores the strengths that made the original a cult favorite in the first place. I'd been hoping for a NiGHTS sequel for some time and am now reminded to be careful what I wish for when it comes to franchise resurrection. Still, I'll buy the new Kid Icarus the day it comes out. The original wasn't that great in the first place.   read

11:01 AM on 08.19.2008

The Neverending Story: A Grown-up Struggles With RPGs

I've been playing Persona 3: FES a lot lately. I bought it the day it came out, four months ago, and though I've been chipping away at it, I still haven't finished it. THe last time I looked at my save file, I've put in a good 67 hours. Not counting the occasional reset or failed boss fight and that puts me, conservatively, at 70 hours. That's almost three days. I've been playing for four months, nearly half a year. I haven't even started the add on quest which I'm told offers another 30 hours of gameplay. Atlus, your game is too long.
Now, console RPGS and I have a long and storied history together. I remember playing through Phantasy Star I on the SMS and Dragon Warrior IV on the NES, to give you some idea of my age. And I continued playing RPGs all the way up through the current era (I refuse to term it "next gen.") But somewhere along the line I quit finishing them and I think that I know why. I got old. I'm married, working, and working on a Ph.D. The days of the caffeinated all-nighter, so integral to RPG completion, are long behind me. I'm just too busy now to put in the kind of hours demanded by my cruel masters at Square and Atlus.
But I still love RPGs. I love shmups, platformers, all kinds of games, but there's something particularly relaxing about an RPG. Usually, after a long and stressful day I don't want to grind my teeth, sprain my thumbs, and throw my controller against the wall because I missed a crucial jump or got fried by a boss for the umpteenth time. I want to escape into another place where I can wander around the village at leisure, explore the overworld, and have a little adventure with pals like Frog, Ness, Yangus, Kaim.
RPGs, more than any genre, are about story and character. Playing an RPG but not finishing it is like picking up a novel, getting into the plot, starting to care about the characters and then not reading to the last page. I want that RPG experience in full, I just don't want to spend six months of intermittent playing to get it.
And here's where I think it goes beyond me getting old and not having time: somewhere along the line Square and Atlus and all their cohorts decided that a 25 to 30 hour adventure just doesn't cut it. 80 to 100 hours has become the norm. Now, these companies are very good at what they do. They've been around for a while now and they certainly know their fanbase. I mean, if Square didn't know who they're selling to, they wouldn't still be milking the withered teats of the Final Fantasy VII cash cow more than 10 years after the fact. So, gamers must demand that their RPGs be interminably long slogs, right? Maybe. I don't. I want an RPG that I can finish in under 40 hours. If the story of Godfather II can be told in 2 1/2 hours, if 40 straight hours of reading can get you through the bulk of a Dostoyevsky novel, then the story of Dragonquest VIII can be told in 40 hours.   read

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