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8:26 AM on 01.31.2009

Rememberies of Zelda - What's in a Name?

The instruction manual for The Legend of Zelda says, "Link, the hero of The Legend of Zelda, does not yet exist. You create Link by first registering your player name".

I remember thinking this was some powerful juju indeed. By speaking his name, I would somehow pull Link into existence from out the dark of nothingness.

Similar to the Childlike Empress's power to crap out a universe if you scream "Moon Child' at her, I had been granted the power to create one of the greatest video game heroes ever... if only I could give him a name.

That's a lot of responsibility for a 10 year old.

I was desperate to begin the game. But first I needed to make Link exist. The burden of choosing a name that he would be stuck with for the duration of this epic adventure was just too much for me to deal with.

Finally I copped out and just called him "ZELDA" since it seemed like a path of least resistance.

Little did I realize... it was not. As some of you may know, if you name your character "ZELDA" you start on the game on the extremely difficult Second Quest rather than the moderately difficult first quest.

And so it was unwittingly that I embarked on the second quest only to have my impish ass handed to me repeatedly in the first dungeon.

I was really dismayed to find that none of the tips for the first part of the game that I'd seen in Nintendo Power seemed to be accurate. And the map that came with the game seemed to be totally incorrect as well. It was like I wasn't playing the same game as everyone else.

After stressing about it for awhile, I decided to start over from the beginning. With time to decompress and deliberate I came up with an appropriately epic name. Calling the character "SNARF", a new Link was born into the world - one that, strangely, wasn't holding a sword on the character selection screen, as he had been before.

Once I got to the first dungeon I found it was completely different, and a lot easier. This led to my long held and mistaken belief that Hyrule was random every time you played.

SNARF ultimately defeated Ganon, got the Triforce of Power, made out with Zelda, and earned a sword on the character selection screen.

By that time I had forgotten all about the other, harder, world that I had accidentally discovered the first time I played. It wasn't until years later that I learned about the ZELDA cheat to jump straight to the second quest.

This experience just reinforced my idea that The Legend of Zelda was the biggest, most mysterious, and completely unknowable game ever.   read

12:56 PM on 09.11.2008

Spore: Dumbed Down or Smartened Up?

The consensus on Spore seems to be that it's an interesting - if imperfect - novelty, a collection of relatively simple editors and game play mechanics that ultimately adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

One of the consistent criticisms is aimed at the complexity of the game's various stages. Until you get into space the player's goals are straightforward and the game mechanics for accomplishing them are simple and fairly repetitive.

Based on statements from Will Wright regarding the vision for the game, I believe this was a deliberate choice rather than an oversight or flaw in the design. And while it may disappoint gamers expecting a deep and complex challenge, I think it was the right decision for the game.

Yesterday I was talking to my sister, who is definitely not a gamer. She mentioned the "cute spore game on the iPhone". I told her about the full game on the computer, and how I had recently gotten into the space space.

She said, "Oh, you mean the little spore goes into space? That's so cool."

So I explained to her how you get to evolve the creature from a cell, to a tribe, to a city, and all the different things that you can build and do along the way.

"That sounds great!" She said. "Could I get it for my computer?"

If she does go out and picks up Spore, I have a feeling she'll enjoy it. Like I said, she's no gamer, but certain types of game experiences like The Oregon Trail really appeal to her. I think Spore taps into a similar groove.

I think she will enjoy the fact that each phase of the game is comprised of a handful of relatively simple things to do and once you understand them you can be "good at the game" and move on relatively quickly. And if you make a mistake or die, that's okay.

If the game were extremely deep or complex in its early phases, it would turn her away. If the game had hard long-lasting consequences that made her feel apprehensive about her choices, it would turn her away. If the game focused strongly on reflexes or timing - in an RTS'y or arcadey way - it would turn her away.

Spore's gameplay won't turn her away. It will welcome her in.

Personally, I think a lot of great things are defined by what they choose to leave rather than what they choose to put in. The Wii and the iPod are great examples of this. Neither has the features of its competitors, but both provide such a pleasing experience that they welcome lots of people in and keep them coming back.

Similarly I think Spore is a very welcoming game. It's one that offers lots of opportunities to noodle around with your creatures and your universe and just have fun seeing what happens as a result. I feel the decision to scale back on complexity in the game mechanics in favor of creativity complexity in the editors was a good choice, and the right choice for the game.

Spore could have been more complex to satisfy core gamers' desire for that kind of challenge, but the cost would have been a less welcoming experience, one where non-gamers may often feel like they're "doing it wrong".

Perhaps sequels or expansions will introduce more depth without sacrificing the superficial simplicity of the experience - "easy to learn, hard to master" - that sort of thing. But for its initial outing Spore had to err on the side of being too inclusive or too exclusive, and considering the overwhelming number of moving parts in the universe, the fact that it's accessible at all is a triumph of good design.

I read the Destructoid review and I agree that if you were to review Spore as a game, it deserves something in the middle of the scale. Not especially great on any gameplay level, but there's fun to be had.

However I don't know if a game review is really the right format to evaluate Spore. I think it's less of a game and more of a toy, or an "entertainment" to put a broader label on it.

While I don't think the term "video game" fairly captures what Spore is, it wouldn't have been possible without the 30 years of video gaming that went before it. Yet as much as it owes a debt to that legacy, I think it's a branch off of gaming tradition rather than a continuation of it - more mutation than descendant.

In many ways Spore is simply raw simulation - a box of "what if" - which is a pretty compelling proposition even if there were no game mechanics at all. I find it interesting that the gist of many of the reviews boils down to: "a lot of little unremarkable systems that add up to an experience greater than the sum of its parts." It's almost as though they're describing emergence, but in terms of experience rather than behavior.

Anyway, in my opinion as that taken as a video game Spore is mediocre to good. As a piece of inclusive creative entertainment, a platform for experimentation and imagination with a low barrier to entry, it's not dumbed down at all - it's brilliant.


1:56 PM on 09.05.2008

Let Us Install It

Ran into this offer today at Best Buy:

Do you think that they're offering to install the game or the T-shirt?

If you were to take them up on the offer, would you have to bring your Wii into the store so that they can insert the disc for you? Or does the geek squad come over to your place and install it there? If so, would they play ring toss with you after the installation is complete?

If it's the T-shirt that they're installing, I feel as though that might be hot. I might buy Carnival Games just to get felt up by the Geek Squad. I imagine that their palms sweat mayonnaise, and they smell like rising bread.

If you are a geek squad geek, could you confirm or deny? What is your degree of deliciousness?   read

11:23 PM on 09.04.2008

Epic Marketing of Wit and Skill

There's a new quasi-lifestreaming site targeting gamers called Raptr. I don't know whether or not the site is useful, but I do know that the explanatory comic strip on the main page is kind of embarrassing.

This strikes me as the sort of ad you'd see at the back of Archie comics during the Genesis era rather than some sort of gamer 2.0 site for the web-savvy at-risk youth of today.

+1 for including girls.
- 1 for not including any minorities.

What do you think this epic game of wit and skill could be? Is it on Wii Ware? Should we all play a team game together? Is the Raptr raptor more appealing than the strung out Goozex dinosaur?


11:05 PM on 06.29.2008

MGS Future: Show don't tell PLZ

<<Spoilers below. Don't read on if you haven't finished MGS:4, or are worried about spoiling any of the other MGS games>>

One of the major criticisms leveled against the Metal Gear Solid series is its over-reliance on long cutscenes. In some cases, really long cutscenes.

Personally, I like cutscenes. I see them as a reward in many games. And if they move the story forward and deepen my understanding of the characters in an entertaining way, I'll not only sit through a long cutscene, I'll often go back and watch it again and again.

My problem with the cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid is that they fall squarely into two camps.

1.) Scenes - These are about characters. They play out in front of you, and by the end something has changed in the characters, or your understanding of them. In many cases they are balls-to-the-wall action set pieces that do character work while kicking ass.

2.) PowerPoint Presentations - These are summaries. They are about events or facts. They are almost always concerned with things that happened in the past, or off-screen. These are used to provide players with the exposition and context necessary to feel grounded in the story.

When I'm watching a scene in Metal Gear Solid I'm often impressed by Kojima Productions' inventiveness, technical skill, and great stroytelling devices. When I'm watching one of the PowerPoint presentations I want to strangle myself with the controller - but there is no cord.

It's not that I don't think that exposition is important, but it's the ham-fisted way that it's delivered that gets to me. Sometimes in chunks that feel like they're somewhere between 15 minutes and 39 hours long, when the important information could be summed up in a sentence or two.

What's frustrating during these presentations is knowing from the past MGS games that a lot of the information you internalize during these epic expository excretions is going to turn out to be a lie. Many of the facts will turn out to be intentionally misleading. While you could look at that as a puzzle to solve, I just see it as getting hit over the head with 30 minutes of misinformation about a make-believe history that I don't find that interesting to begin with.

What I do find interesting are the characters, their relationships, and how they change over the course of the game, and the course of the series. For instance, the first scene with Meryl where she calls her father a "womanizing pice of shit" tells us a lot about her character. But what tells us even more about her is the finale where she asks him to walk her down the aisle. After everything she's been through she's changed, and that's really interesting to me.

One of the reasons I resent the PowerPoint presentations is because they ruin what could be brilliant scenes about the characters. For example, when Snake meets Big Mamma and discovers that not only is she Eva from MGS3, but that she's his goddamn mother, my jaw hit the floor. I was expecting a great scene from these two strong characters. But instead I got a long diatribe about make-believe history and a camera spinning idly around a Church looking for symbolism.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that the MGS universe is so deep and well thought out. But here's how I would have preferred - just when it's about to go into the PowerPoint presentation, Eva could have said,

"Snake, you need to know the history of the Patriots. It's all here on this Nano-Film. You can view it at any time on your codec. Would you like to watch it now?"


If the PowerPoint presentations were optional, I wouldn't have any problem with them. In fact, I'm sure I'd still watch them. But then they wouldn't interrupt the flow of the more interesting scenes.

The worst offender for me was the epilogue. Big Boss telling Snake, "I've never thought of you as a son. But I've always respected you as a soldier, and a man." That was good shit bringing closure to pretty much the whole series. The "Back to Zero" PowerPoint presentation that you have to sit through to get there; that can die in a fire.

Anyway, I loved the game and look forward to playing it again. But I hope that future installments make unnecessary exposition optional and focus on what the Kojima team excels at, things like action, romance, and complex characters.

Does anyone actually like the "talky" cutscenes? Am I just overly critical?   read

3:58 AM on 06.28.2008

The Start of the Affair: Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders

TLDR Version - Zak McKracken totally changed my perspective about what games could be by telling a great story with interesting characters and clever (if obtuse) puzzles.

TL Version:

When I was a kid, about ten, after enough begging, crying, and lite-extortion, my mother would eventually break down and let me buy a video game.

The opportunity to buy a game was a really big deal because it didn't come around very often, and when it did I had to make absolutely certain I was getting the most out of it. The decision would often take the better part of a day. I'd wander up and down the aisle at Toys 'R Us or KB reading the back of every box flap (they didn't have the actual boxes on display, just laminated cards) carefully scrutinizing the box art and tiny screenshots to figure out what the game might be like.

At the time my only windows into larger gaming culture was the Nintendo Fun Club newsletter (later Nintendo Power) and whatever information filtered through my small group of gamer friends. With no internet to guide me, a lot was left to chance.

Sometimes, I took a gamble and was pleasantly surprised. For instance, Ice Climbers kept me thoroughly entertained despite the fact that it was a, "Pick something or I'll pick it for you" spur of the moment decision. Other times, I wasn't so lucky.

Shortly after I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, I decided I was done with the console racket and ready to move on to the more sophisticated offerings that only a legitimate computing machine could provide. Little did I realize what cesspool of crapulence I was wading into. I picked a box flap with an awesome laser blasting spaceship flying over a Death Star looking thing and headed home confident that I was about to enter the next generation.

PC games came in big boxes at the time. When I opened this one up a stained floppy disc fell out and a napkin with instructions scrawled in Korean. It emitted a foul vapor and a moan, as though an unholy seal had been broken.

I can't really describe the ancient evil that I experienced. It consisted of a slow moving box on-screen that occasionally emitted other slow moving boxes. The music was a single bass note that seemed to start and stop at irregular intervals. You did not appear to have any direct control over your "ship". It would arbitrarily explode in a seizure-inducing light show. This abortion wasn't so much a game as a cruel experiment dreamed up by B.F. Skinner and Josef Mengele. It was crime and I was its victim.

I was heartbroken. I had no idea when my next opportunity to buy a game would be, and I couldn't bring myself to blow into an NES game pak and return to that comfortable world, defeated.

So I decided to do the only thing a kid in my situation could do -- Lie. I told my mother that the game was broken, and we needed to go back to the store IMMEDIATELY and exchange it. I could be persuasive (intolerable) at that age, and so we were back in the car on the way to Toys 'R Us.

I tentatively approached the man in the cage - he was the one who controlled all the video games - and handed him the vile box. Apparently Geoffrey the Giraffe is a cruel task master.

"It's broken." I told him.

"Yeah, you have the receipt?"

What? I hadn't brought a receipt. He'd out-foxed me. I needed time to think. In lieu of a more clever diversionary tactic, I prepared to wet my pants.

"Here it is." My mother handed him the receipt and then lit up a Newport 100. Triumph!

"Alright, I'll go get you another one. It'll be awhile."

Another one?... There was more than one?? Oh no. I imagined the entire litter would have been incinerated.

"Wait," I said, "That kind of game doesn't work with my computer."

"Ugh," the cage-master sighed, "You need to read the label on these. I'll get the IBM one."

The IBM one!? I'd painted myself into a corner. Now I would be going home with the same game, but a version that I couldn't even use. The box would just sit on a shelf, laughing at me and inciting me to deaden my feelings and betray my friends and family just like that creepy book in the Care Bears Movie. Fuck that book.

"No, I think I need to pick a different game," I said.

"A different game? No no no, you can only exchange an opened game for the same game."

At that point my mother stamped her cigarette out on the side of her purse, flicked the butt onto the ground and stamped it out. She scratched the side of her face with her middle finger, "I don't have time for this. You're going to refund me the money for the DEFECTIVE game now. My son is going to pick out a new one. And then I am going to use the money that you're about to refund me to buy it." Her penciled-in eyebrow was cocked in its cuntiest position, the one that implied - "I will end you. Then eat you. Then shit you." The eyebrow had superpowers, and I was glad it wasn't aimed at me.

Cage-master withered under its rays and without further discussion he refunded the money.

"You have five minutes." My mother said as she lit up her next cigarette.

I ran back to the flap aisle looking for something - anything - that might not be a total abomination.

And then, across the crowded aisles, our eyes met and it was love at first sight.

Let's take a look at this picture at some of the things that tickled my young fancy:

1.) The hero is armed not with a machine gun, or a laser cannon, a +2 vorpal sword of wolvesbane, but instead with a loaf of bread. How badass is that?

2.) He's carrying a fucking fish.

3.) I hoped the game would be almost entirely about this broom. It appears to be checking out Zak's ass. Turns out the game wasn't about the broom so much, but his role is satisfying indeed.

4.) A cowboy hat paired with Groucho glasses. Not since Steve Martin stuck the arrow through his head has there been a better recipe for instant prop comedy.

5.) A two-headed squirrel guards an oversized peanut. Are you going to fuck with that squirrel? I don't think so.

6.) WHAT IS THAT? It's like an octopus shit out an entire human body. Amazing!

7.) This is Janeane Garofalo. She really wants to eat that bread. She's too ironic to be amused by the Groucho glasses, but she's being paid to hold them up and shill them.

8.) This statue is exhibiting what we on the school yard referred to as "blow cramps". This suggested that the ancient culture depicted here were masters of fellatio and perhaps this game would provide me with mouth sex.

Upon seeing all these wonders crammed into one image I had my first non-penetrative orgasm and grabbed its box-flap immediately.

We didn't get any guff from the man in the cage as he dutifully got the game for us. He may have wiped his ass on it for all I know, but at that point I would gladly have taken an ass-box if it meant getting a crack at the promised treasures inside.

On the ride home I got nervous. What if I had blundered again? It was an impulse buy. What if I'd been duped by the fancy packaging and all that was inside was broken dreams and the sound of a cat suffocating a baby?

So I started opening the game in the car against my mother's wishes, "For Christ's sake, you're going to lose all the pieces".

Inside there was not a waft of sadness, but instead a genuine manual, a secret decoder, official looking red documents, and an entire newspaper.

The newspaper, The National Inquisitor, was almost worth the price of admission alone. It was funny in a grown up way, but still silly. It was brilliantly illustrated. And when I later discovered that it was brimming with hints I would stay up late into the night poring over it to try and find hidden meanings in its fake news stories.

Check out the full scanned version of it here.

Before playing Zak McKracken there were a lot of games I had liked at the arcade, on the Atari 2600, the NES, and the Sega Master System. But even the games I truly loved like Super Mario Brothers, Zelda, and Phantasy Star, always felt "different" from other entertainment. They had basic plots and characters, but they didn't really have stories. Your interaction with the world was often limited to a handful of mechanics.

Not to knock the other games at the time, there were a lot of great ones. But what Zak did was open my eyes to the possibilities of what games could be.

When I started playing it I was first struck by the fact that you could interact with pretty much everything on screen. And not just by jumping on it or stabbing it, you could look, talk, touch, open, fix, pick up, and much more. Combined with your ever-growing inventory the possibilities seemed endless.

And while many of the interactions would trigger a canned response, quite a few of them had surprising or funny things to say even if you were doing the wrong thing. In fact, it seemed like the game wanted you to try the wrong thing, to mess around with the world just to see what would happen.

Nowadays sandbox gaming is commonplace so this might not seem like such a big idea. But at the time it was amazing that the game wanted you to play with it like a toy as much as it encouraged you to move the story along.

I think that attitude is summed up nicely in the game design philosophy from the manual:

Our Game Design Philosophy

We believe that you buy games to be entertained, not to be whacked over the head every time you make a mistake. So we don't bring the game to a screeching halt when you poke you nose into a place you haven't visited before. In fact, we make it downright difficult to get a character "Killed."

We think you'd prefer to solve the games mysteries by exploring and discovering. Not by dying a thousand deaths. We also think you like to spend your time involved in the story. Not typing in synonyms until you stumble upon the computer's word for a certain object.

Unlike conventional computer adventures,Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders doesn't force you to save you progress every few minutes. Instead, you're free to concentrate on the puzzles, characters and outrageous good humor.

Keep in mind this was still in the heyday of arcades, and many games were designed so that you were killed as frequently as possible. The only way to survive was to master a single mechanic through trial and error and practice, practice, practice. Zak's philosophy, essentially - "We want you to have fun solving the puzzles, and enjoy the story," was ahead of its time.

Speaking of story, the game included many memorable characters with distinct personalities and well-written interactions. It felt like playing a movie, in a way that the FMV games that followed in the early-90's utterly failed to do. It was like you were inside an Indiana Jones world with the sensibility of Mad Magazine, and you could do anything that you wanted to. It was the first time a game felt epic to me in the sense that grand events were unfolding and that I was the one driving the action.

For its time, Zak was also a very cinematic game. It made use (for the time) elaborate cutscenes. In game many of the environments were "shot" in a cinematic way, meaning that the camera would sometimes be tight on something in the foreground and Zak would be large on the screen, and at other times Zak would be a single pixel dwarfed by these massive environments.

The meat of the game was really the puzzles. And while some were probably a bit too obtuse for their own good, and others were downright unfair (The mazes! Ugh... the mazes), most were just the right mix of lateral thinking and basic reasoning.

In one situation you need to book a biplane to the bermuda triangle and then parachute out of it before you are abducted by an alien ship helmed by an Elvis Impersonator who controls the lottery. After you splash down in the ocean you use a kazoo to summon a friendly dolphin and then take possession of his body and soul via a magical mind-melding crystal. Having hijacked the dolphin's body, you explore the ruins of Atlantis and recover a machine left behind by ancient astronauts.

In one single puzzle you have the bermuda triangle, Elvis impersonating aliens, dolphins that mistake the sound of a kazoo for a sweet sexy cetacean mating song. It's possible that wooing a dolphin into your clutches and then commandeering its body could be considered a form of date rape. But in this case the dolphin was totally asking for it.

Zak McKracken opened my eyes to what games could be. They could tell stories. They could form an emotional connection between the player and the characters. They could be cinematic. They could be open-ended. And they could be spring-loaded busy boxes full of fun and surprises just for their own sake.

To sum up, Zak McKracken made me feel like games were genuine entertainment in the same class as books, TV, and movies. From then on gaming wasn't just something something I'd do when I was bored. I threw myself into games on the computer, consoles, whatever just to see what's out there, experience it, and try to figure out what makes it tick. I've met some of my best friends through gaming, and have a ton of memories from games that I'd consider on par with any other form of entertainment.

So in the end there was no mouth sex in Zak McKracken, but maybe something just as good.

Well... maybe.

[embed]92719:12633[/embed]   read

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