I was a Nintendo purist while growing up, but fortunately I wised up eventually. Now I have a 360 in addition to a lot of older-generation consoles and games, but hopefully a Wii and PS3 will be in the cards as soon as finances allow.
Update: Finances allow! Wii Get! Badow.
Trying to reconcile adult responsibilities with diehard gaming is a challenge, but it's a day to day process.
It can be hard to find time for everything. Right now Iím working a steady job, with slightly more hours going hand-in-hand with a recent promotion. The net result is more money to spend on leisure items (like games, among other things) and less availability of leisure time (like gaming, among other things). I believe this is a fairly common mid-20s gaming conundrum.
Couple this with an enormous backlog and an old habit of losing steam partway through games, even if Iím enjoying them Ė although Iím familiar with the entirety of a lot of my old RPGs, Iíve only played a few of them to completion myself. Rather, my knowledge comes from a childhood disregard for spoilers (Iím much more cautious now) and a youthful love for reading strategy guides cover to cover.
So many of my unfinished games are sprawling epics, but I rarely seem to have trouble polishing off action or adventure games from beginning to end. Unfortunately I have a troublesome habit of running out of steam Ė even if Iím enjoying a game, I often simply fade on it after playing for too many hours, and if the experience isnít visceral enough to keep me engaged.
All this has led me to a recent venture, as I was considering the way I experience other forms of art (or not-art, however you stand on that whipping horse Ė I seriously donít care). When Iím reading, I donít multi-task between several different books Ė the farthest I dabble in that is to read a graphic novel and a regular one concurrently. When Iím watching a movie, I donít pause it halfway and start another one (unless the original movie is incredibly bad, and I have quite a tolerance for celluloid badness). When Iím binging seasons of TV on DVD, I prefer to finish a season before moving to another, to keep narratives intact.
So if my personal predilection is to enjoy everything else as a series of individual, singular experiences, why not try that with games too?
The guinea pig in this case is actually Dragon Age: Origins. Perhaps a bit random, and a bit behind the times, but apparently thatís a running theme for me.*
Iím getting close to finishing it up, finally, after starting it about a month ago or so (like I say, my leisure time has gotten limited). I wonít go into plot details or my opinion of the game, since that would be another blog, but as far as the experiment has been going Ė thus far, Iím glad Iíve forced myself into it. My play sessions are often several days apart simply for logistical reasons, and at least once or twice Iíve felt that familiar old sputter of the motivation-motor. Again, itís not because Iím not enjoying the game Ė sometimes fatigue just sets in whether you like it or not. In the past I might have just thrown in the towel and moved on to something else Ė and then, if I decided to return to DA:O later on, I would most likely start an entirely new game due to forgetting plotlines and a minor case of gamer OCD. That old process might repeat ad nauseum, and who knows if I ever would finish it? At least at this point, Iím confident Iíll finish the game Ė not exactly sure when it will happen or how long it will take, but Iím ready to keep at it.
Not to say everything has been positive Ė the downside of this is that I have a stable of other games that have been spurned in order for me to maintain my stick-to-it-iveness. Dragon Quest IX has probably been the hardest to resist Ė I considered adding an addendum allowing concurrent playing of a console and a portable game, but decided against giving myself a window out (plus, from what I hear, if thereís any game that acts as a timesink and steals you from your other responsibilities, itís DQIX). I have a recently purchased Wii quietly waiting with Monster Hunter Tri and two-thirds of Metroid Prime Trilogy, as well as a parade of yet-to-be-purchased games waiting in the wings, and I seriously want to buy a PS3 now that I actually have the financial stability to do so.
But all that can wait, I guess. I should probably get back to what I was doing. :)
*I donít how shameless this plug will be considered, but apologies.
I've been perusing the blogs of late, gleaning the arguments and memes, hearing the lament for a current dearth of content. Not that I think I can solve the problem single-handedly (of course not), but I'd like to get back on this blogging horse and actually be a part of this community more-better-like.
So I'm coming here with a question - what sort of writing would you guys find interesting? I'm not asking this just for myself - maybe if we all put our heads together to figure out what it is that really keeps us coming back to the c-blogs - the intellectual, the random, the nostalgic, the ornery (strongly worded, but rationally considered) - we can start to bottle some of that magic.
Mostly I would just like to keep you folks engaged - I know that a lot of writing is done for the sake of itself, and there's hardly a more noble endeavor. However, the instant audience and potential readership that can be found here are really what makes it special, and it seems silly to not consider what that audience wants to hear.
Looking at some of my previous blogs, I wrote some kind of retrospective stuff about older games that I was finally getting around to playing. I guess they were fine, for what they were - looking back at them, though, I'm not very satisfied for a couple of reasons. First of all, it's kind of hard to encompass the experience of a game in a good, solid post while still staying concise. Secondly, I had a tendency to fall into the usual routes of "man, this game still looks good for being made in 2005" or "wasn't that part where you got the new weapon awesome?" Valid thoughts, but everyone's had them before - the first time they played through the game, so I wasn't breaking any new ground. What I've lacked in some of my stuff is a real thesis - something to tie a post together, offer thoughts on a specific design or aesthetic choice to be found in a game...you know, actually argue something, maybe.
So I may start trying to do some of those with a bit more focus. Another idea I've had is taking the "idle musings" form and stretching it out - doing kind of a diary-like writeup of the first time through a game, with posts once or twice a week or so, which could offer a more comprehensive portrait of a player's experience. The one I've had in mind is actually for the first Super Mario Galaxy - I just got my Wii (finally) about a week ago and have barely started playing any of the sweet games available for it, so it's a semi-logical option (and relevant, with the sequel coming out).
I would love to write more about current and new releases - problem is, my lifestyle just doesn't cater to them very much. A while ago, I was mostly unemployed so there was plenty of time to hit up the next big thing (assuming it wasn't on a system I didn't own...working on that problem). Now I've landed a full time job, so the problem is reversed - I have the money to throw down on the big-name games, but with limited time to play and a MONSTER of a backlog it's a tough nut to crack (also, the last time I actually bought a game on release day [Bioshock 2] I failed to blog about it entirely, like lame sauce).
Well, this is turning into the kind of ambling musing I was berating myself for earlier...oh well. Here's the skinny, folks - I just really dig what this community has, and I love reading other people's blogs (although I don't comment as often as I should...), and I would love to be a bigger part of everything. Thanks for reading the idle musings of a trying-to-get-oneself-motivated blogger, and now to end this post with the super-lame move of putting the onus of responsibility on you, dear readers...
What would YOU like to read?
P.S. Sorry for the wall of text - if I had Photoshop on my laptop I totally would have tried to whip up some bomb images, but alas.
I don't usually like to post shortblogs like this but I haven't seen Dale or someone post it on the frontpage yet and the world needs to know - the OneUps' new album, aptly titled Super Mario Kart Album is out now.
You can buy a combo physical-CD/download, or just download the tracks if you don't want the actual disc. And it's $10 (or more if you want - support!). All of the tracks are up for perusal too so you can try before you buy.
I'm not affiliated with these guys in any way - I just think they are the absolute best game music band on the scene today as far as musicianship, innovation, and technique, and they deserve as much success as we can throw at them.
With motion controls on the horizon and analysts hesitantly predicting that the current lineup of hardware may last well into the new decade, it seems that the seventh generation of consoles has a healthy chance of breaking the five-year clockwork cycle of upgrades that the video game industry has followed since inception. Itís certainly an exciting time to be a gamer, with our numbers steadily growing and mainstream recognition (both positive and negative) becoming more and more commonplace. But if we imagine looking back at where we stand from ten or twenty years down the road, what will truly define this moment in gaming history? Is it the continual upgrades to graphics and immersion that make games more controversially ďcinematicĒ? Is it the advent of motion controls to engage casual and hardcore gamers in new and exciting ways? Honestly, I donít think so. If thereís one thing that the gaming industry is doing now that I can unabashedly support and point to as an indication of progress, is it this: gaming is finally learning to respect its past.
Now before you brush this blog off as another retro fanboyís slavering celebration of the ďgood old daysĒ, hear me out. Idly watching (and mostly being bored by) the Golden Globes ceremony a couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about Martin Scorsese and his work with the Film Foundation. This group is dedicated to the restoration and preservation of classic films, with the intention of preserving the mediumís legacy and making it available to new generations of film audiences, creators, and scholars. A while later, my percolating subconscious started to draw some parallels with this sort of effort and the recent advent of classic game distribution. Yes, almost exclusively within this generation, all of the video game ďmajorsĒ have been exploring this new venture.
- Nintendo led the charge with the Virtual Console service, essentially creating a legitimate and officially sponsored means of access to classic games. Previously, the only way for many to play these games was through illegal emulation; now, although cost and profit have entered into the equation, we get the benefit of quality control and a satisfied conscience. Additionally, the VC is slowly shaping into a platform where previously unavailable or untranslated games can be released to the public for the first time (i.e. Sin and Punishment).
- Not one to be left behind, Sony has slowly begun to shape the PSN Store into a sort of preservation for classic and hard-to-find PS1 games. Unfortunately, the weak link of their platform is PS2 games; we need not retread the messy story of PS3 backwards compatibility, and it doesnít appear that there are any current plans to offer them as digital-only downloads. Hopefully there will be some way to bridge the gap before long.
- Microsoft has the least to offer in the classic game department, if only because they are the most recent contestant to enter the video gaming battlefield. However, their Xbox originals service is a step in the right direction, providing easy access to last-gen games without subjecting gamers to scavenger hunts on eBay or dubious backward compatibility. They are also are undergoing a unique experiment with Games on Demand, providing current-gen releases in a digital-only format akin to Steam.
- And of course, there is Steam itself, the big bad monopolizing digital platform for PCs. Steam is also an invaluable resource for finding and playing classic and out-of-print games, and often at absurdly low prices for gamers looking to round out their classical education.
All of these platforms have only been around for a few years or less, making them a development unique to the seventh generation of gaming. But what does it mean? A cynical view would be that itís just another way for the overseers of gaming to gobble up our money, albeit in smaller, easier increments. I donít think thatís really what we should be focusing on, however. No one is required to go back and cough up five bucks to play Ice Climbers again. However, for those who are so inclined, the option is there, and the simple fact of a given gameís availability to us is something to be celebrated and encouraged.
I realize that the comparison is incredibly overwrought, but to bring the film industry into the discussion again, the official re-release of classic games reminds me of an undertaking similar to the Criterion Collection of DVDs. Making these games available for (arguably) affordable prices is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the history of gaming (either as a craft or an art form, depending on which side you take on that whole debate). In my opinion, it also helps to legitimize the entire industry. By acknowledging the contributions of the past and the heritage that these games represent, the video game makers of today are showing a great deal of respect and reverence to the history of the medium. Nobody today raises an eyebrow at the notion of film preservation; the medium has almost unanimously become a legitimate art form in the public eye. By taking the first steps towards classic game preservation, perhaps weíre laying the seeds for total mainstream acceptance of gaming in twenty or thirty years. Who knows?
For my part, I want to see this trend continue and grow exponentially. Unfortunately, the gaming industry is more fundamentally divided than the film or record industry, so we donít have any kind of universal play-all medium akin to the DVD or CD. Therefore, the dream of a magical, officially sponsored play-all-games-ever console is something that will likely never happen, or at least not for any foreseeable future. However, things are still looking optimistic. Nintendo is working to bridge the gap by featuring off-the-beaten-road consoles such as the TurboGrafx-16 and NeoGeo, and I only want them to take it farther. Maybe someday youíll be able to download a classic game and have it come with a short documentary or an essay about its significance, akin to liner notes for a CD or the extras we come to expect on a DVD. I really think that this is an important and historic undertaking, one that is extremely relevant to old and new gamers alike. Hereís hoping that the video game titans realize it too, and make it a priority alongside their photorealistic graphics, motion control, bajillion-selling franchise games, and whatever else they throw their money at these days.
Since moving from the boonies to the relatively sparkling metropolis of Chicago, I have discovered at least one of the enormous benefits of big city life: retro gaming stores. I was riding the Clark bus one day not long after moving here and spotted a storefront awning that proclaimed: People Play Games. Wandering inside, I discovered a tiny slice of mecca for old-school systems and games. In consequence, I now am slowly adding a bunch of retro games to my backlog in addition to trying to keep up with new releases. Gaming is hard, isn't it?
I left that first visit to PPG with a couple of treasures: Pac-Man 2: The New Adventures for SNES (which deserves its own writeup sometime, although psychoanalysis might be a better choice for it), and the original Tomb Raider for PS1. I finally beat it just the other day, so now let's talk about it.
My personal history with the Tomb Raider franchise started earlier, when I played through part of the first level at a friend's house. At that time, I was probably too young for it, because while I loved the idea of the game, it scared the ever-living crap out of me. Later when I got my own PS1, I had myself a copy of Tomb Raider 2, which I eventually sold for far too little in-store credit at a local gaming store. Now I kind of wish I had it back - not because it was a particularly great game, but because I wouldn't mind giving the sequel a whirl now that I've battled through the first one. Point is, I was familiar with the franchise and the control scheme before going into this one. It still had at least a couple of tricks up its sleeve, though.
First off: this game is actually pretty tough, although not in the ways you would expect. The combat basically consists of letting the game auto-target for you, and then hold down the X button until your enemy is dead. Rinse and repeat. You can also employ some very basic strategies, such as: Get to higher ground so wolves can't bite you! Jump around willy-nilly so you don't get punched by a gorilla! Flail around in the air attempting to dodge bullets from cowboys and skateboard-riding kids with Uzis! Honestly, dodging attacks doesn't really work if the game has a mind to hurt you (and when the bad guys have guns, you WILL inevitably take damage). Fortunately, there are a liberal number of medkits and ammo drops scattered throughout the world, so as long as you are slightly diligent in hunting down pickups you will never, ever run out. I was consciously saving my ammo and medkits for the last level, and it turned out there wasn't much need, as I finished up with about 20 large medkits and over 2000 uzi rounds left, not to mention ammo for my other guns. So, this is not where the challenge lies.
Rather, the difficulty arises from the simple fact that Tomb Raider is straight up, old school mean. This hostility towards the player begins straight off the bat, with nothing but a perfunctory (and optional) tutorial standing between you and the killer bats, dart blowguns, and death falls of the very first level. Seriously, they don't even teach you how to shoot your guns before things start trying to kill you. It's a bit jarring in our day and age, when we're used to our games walking us through the first hour or two with a plethora of on-screen instructions, doling out one ability at a time to make sure we can handle it. It's a bit comforting and a nice way to ease us into some crazy new game mechanic, but at the same time I think it makes us a little soft. Standing in the opposite camp is something like, say, your bionic arm in the NES Bionic Commando. You had to figure that thing out, and quick, because whether or not you could swing from ledge to ledge dispatching baddies wasn't the game's problem. Tomb Raider might not be quite that harsh, but it sure isn't going to hold your hand for you.
The other contributing factor to the game's challenge, besides the lack of directive, is its beastly level design. I understand that the sprawling, labyrinthine levels of the TR franchise have been fairly influential, but I must say that at least in this installment, they are major pains in the ass. Tomb Raider seems to subscribe to the esoteric school of design, when you have to run through a multitude of similar-looking stone corridors to throw a switch, which opens a door on the other side of the level, raising or lowering the water level and providing you with one of three rusty keys you need to progress through the end door. Or something like that. You have no idea where to begin, and also no mapping feature, which makes wrapping your mind around a level's layout an ongoing challenge. The janky save system also means that if you miss a jump or stumble into an errant spike pit at the wrong time, you may have to start some platforming or battle sequence all over again. Cursing at the TV tends to ensue.
The graphics don't really help either. Seriously, I know this game was pretty impressive back in the day for full-blown 3D environments in an age of pre-rendered backgrounds, but yikes. You've got repetitive textures, gloomy lighting, polygon tearing, a camera that swings around indiscriminately, and Lara constantly stands right between you and whatever you're trying to look at. The game is far from unplayable, but we sure put up with a lot more crap from our visuals back in the day.
I'm beginning to sound like a hater, however. Despite all of that grousing and musing above, I really did enjoy my time playing through Tomb Raider. The big reason why is that, when a game demonstrates overt unfriendliness and hostility, there's that much more satisfaction when you triumph over it. I got this game a few months ago and just beat it the other day, because for me the perfect pace was to start a new level every week or so and do battle with Lara Croft's uncaring universe until I made it through. Then a sigh of relief, a few days to do something else, and then come back, rested, refreshed, and ready to raid that tomb even deeper.
That's what she said?
If you live in Chicago, go check out People Play Games at 3268 N Clark. I do not work there and they did not pay me to write this. Everybody who can should pop in, though.
Also, this was #2 in my blog series...if you liked what you read, please check out more. Comments and criticism are very welcome. Thanks for reading!
A little explanation: this past summer I moved halfway across the country and spent two and a half months wallowing in unemployment and a frustrating job hunt. The result? Much more time to sit around and play games than life had previously afforded, and also the chance to work my way through a bunch of famous games that the wider community has played through, obsessed over, digested, and moved on from. This is the beginning of a series where I'd like to chat about first-time impressions of said games, and hopefully remind folks of their thoughts and feelings from way back then. Here we go - hope you enjoy.
Over the years I've cultivated a slightly notorious habit for not buying games until they hit that magical price point of 20 bucks. That, coupled with a couple years of critical and popular buzz, led me to finally grab a copy of The Orange Box while out running errands. The one game I really wanted to leap right into was Portal, but I decided to exercise some restraint and start with the biggest chunk of the disc, which of course is Half-Life 2. I knew of the first Half-Life by reputation only (and a quick Wikipedia scan of the plot to make sure things in the sequel made sense), and I'd played about 45 minutes worth of Half-Life 2 on a friend's PC in high school (just long enough to make a cinderblock see-saw in the canals and learn that physics can also apply to video games). That aside, I didn't know much of what I was getting into, and as a result had plenty of pleasant surprises in store for me.
One of the results of buying an Xbox 360 last year was that I've probably played more first-person and third-person shooters in the last year than in my entire previous gaming career. This is not to say that I had an aversion to them before - it's just that the 360 caters well to the genre, and action games have been engaging me more than RPGs as of late. While I would hardly start to call myself an expert (or even particularly well-educated) on the genre, I have to say the main thing that sets Half-Life 2 apart from other genre competitors is the focus it places on environment, atmosphere, and (relative) realism.
The opening scenes of the game, for example, are a testament to the power that visuals, audio, and game design can carry when assembled carefully. Arriving in City 17 and progressing through the train station and plaza was a powerful experience, because the developers managed to integrate scripted events and NPC routines in such a way that gave the world more spontaneity and realism than most games accomplish. It's a frighteningly plausible police state that you're walking through, from the menace of the Civil Protection officers to the meek citizens and the video screens sprouting propaganda overhead. Adding to the emotional impact was the developers' choice to leave you unarmed and helpless, only heightening the oppression around you. When you get caught in the middle of an apartment raid and can see avenues of escape getting cut off one by one, the fact that running for your life is literally the only option you have made for a surprisingly terrifying experience.
I have to say it was surprisingly satisfying when the game finally gives you a pistol and the chance to fight back. The action of shooting your first enemy, which in most shooters wouldn't cause us to blink an eye, became an act of great significance in light of your previous fear and inability to act. In this bleak and weary world, the revolution literally begins with you.
The opening of this game still remains the most striking part to me, as you can perhaps tell. Once you get into the swing of things, it moves along like any well-polished and thoughtfully designed game: new equipment is acquired and explained, opportunity is given to use your new skills, puzzles and enemies scale in complexity. The fact that I don't have as many specific things to say is hardly a criticism: rather, it is always a pleasure when you can let a game take the reins and just follow along its journey, confident that you are in good hands.
I would like to talk about the ending for just a moment, however (in mostly benign non-spoiler terms, so don't worry too much). The last chapter of the game actually switched up the gameplay in a really enjoyable way (via your weaponry, specifically), and I thought that it created an engaging new way to play the game. I have a friend who holds the opinion that some of the best games throw their toughest challenges at you right before the end, and then give you a fun, low-stress segment afterwards as a kind of reward (a prime example being the Brumak ride at the end of Gears of War 2). In this case, I suppose the strider battle would be the big hurdle to overcome, followed by a big playground for the gravity gun. I dug on that.
Rather, I'm talking about the ending-ending of the game, as in the last moments before the credits roll. Abrupt is the first word that leaps to mind when I think back on it. I'm well aware that it is similar in many, many ways to the end of the first Half-Life, but I can't help but feel that in the first game the plot must have felt at least a bit more wrapped up before the end. So much of the end of Half-Life 2 gets unexplained that, if I didn't know I have Episodes 1 and 2 still ahead, I think I would have felt cheated. Those of you who played the game on PC right when it came out, what are your thoughts? I'm really curious if you thought the end was satisfying in any way whatsoever, or if it pissed you off.
Half-Life 2 isn't a perfect game. If I were to get nitpicky about criticism, I think I would say the vehicle segments dragged on a bit long, and some of the precision platforming required made for a few too many cheap deaths (although this is a criticism in pretty much any first-person game with jumping, even Metroid Prime which does the best job with it). But like I say, that's nitpicking. It's not a perfect game, but it's still pretty freaking great, and I'm happy to have finally made my way through it. But now I've got two more episodes to tackle, so the ride is far from over...
Thanks for reading. I'm hoping to get a blog series started with this and get people engaged, so any feedback is mucho appreciated.
Oh, and a postscript: I finished Portal today and am now officially obsessed with it, so I expect I'll write about that sometime soon. And "Still Alive" has been stuck in my head for a couple of hours now...