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1:41 AM on 05.25.2010

Rediscovering Mario

It’s easy to say that Mario is still a symbol of gaming as a whole. You see that trademark red cap, black moustache, and his big smile, and you instantly associate it with video games. And there was a time, not just for me, but nearly everyone who considered themselves a gamer, when the sheer thought of playing those games brought about instant elation.

That’s not true anymore. A lot of gamers look at Mario and are driven to instant “meh.” Some probably have even stronger negative opinions, that he’s a relic of a bygone era, having failed to “mature” with the majority of his audience. And naturally, you’ve got the opposite side of the spectrum that comes from a lot of the writers on this site – even from a critical standpoint, Mario earned yet another 10 today, and then you’ve got Chad, who simply loves Mario for everything that he is, with his own personal reasons.

I realized, reading the Galaxy 2 review, that I personally haven’t felt genuine hype over a Mario game in a long, long time. To me, his games have felt so manufactured, a view that only sinks further into its own jaded mire with each passing year, and my avid and vested interest in the corporate world of gaming. I see Nintendo for the beast that it is, and somehow Mario transitioned from the face of fun and child-like glee to a corporate mascot that needs only to appear on a Wii box to move a million copies.

I guess the purpose of this blog is more to share where I went wrong than to deliver any sort of concrete evidence of one thing or another. And I say “went wrong” because I think I –am- wrong. I need only to look at Galaxy 2 review scores, screenshots, or listen to music samples to know that this game is something I should, and kind of want to play. And I beat myself up for that too – Kind of? I KIND OF want to play a Mario game?

When I was in elementary school, Super Mario Brothers 3 became a borderline unhealthy obsession. I couldn’t afford it, and when my neighborhood friend who day 1’ed everything ( we all knew that guy, didn’t we?) got it, I was raging jealous. But as luck would have it– his parents caught him playing at 3 AM on a school night, and forbid him from playing it for a week. So he let me borrow it.

I can honestly attribute that week as one of the greatest weeks in my childhood. Mario 3, with its infinite secrets, the exhilarating mechanic of flight, the stupid mini-games, and its 8 varied worlds stole my childhood imagination and made it its bitch. Mario 3 is still regarded as one of the greatest games of all time, and with good reason.

I don’t think it was until Super Mario World that my first “HEYYY WTF” was directed at Mario. I was just a little older by then, and you know what got the brunt of my ire? Yoshi.

I know. Who can hate Yoshi!? He’s practically as much of a staple in the series as Mario is now. But back then, I didn’t think Mario needed him. And why was he named Yoshi? His name doesn’t fit with the Italian or the mushroom theme, and just because the game is made in Japan means he needs to have a Japanese name!? Oh I raged. And just to add insult to injury, I felt like the ‘”cape” completely lacked the imagination and charm that the Raccoon suit had.

But the day I bought a Super Nintendo my opinion changed for the better. Super Mario World was a solid game if ever a Mario game was solid. Challenging, still chalk full of secrets, and y’know, Yoshi wasn’t even that bad. In fact, in my social circle, it was the cool thing to do to 96 not just one file, but ALL THREE. We made our own platinum trophies back then, see.

It wasn’t until Mario 64 that I truly turned on Mario. If you’ve been listening to the Bit Transmission podcasts, I’m totally with them when they say the N64 was shit. Not that the first generation PS1 games weren’t. I think 3D hit gaming before it was ready. A statement you can use again today and oddly enough, still have it be appropriate. The jaggy edges, the awkward level design, the wonky camera…. And not just Mario 64, but all of those games.

N64 games have what I call now an “N64 approach” to level design. Games built in this era changed your enemies. In the world of sprites, the bad guys themselves, and the environment split the duty about 50/50. It was a good balance of both elements working in tandem to defeat your ‘stachio’ed ass. But on N64, the balance shifted almost entirely to the environment, and a third enemy appeared – the camera angle.

Yes, Mario 64 was probably better than most 64 games with regard to the player’s ability to manipulate the camera. But anyone who plays games today knows, designers have worked incredibly hard to eliminate the idea that “moving the camera” should act as a gameplay mechanic. I shouldn’t have to stop playing the game to see where I’m going. I shouldn’t have to press the C buttons to figure out if I can make a jump. And those two sentences sum up my experience with Mario 64 pretty well.

I tried. I WANTED to be okay with Mario 64. When my friend left his N64 at my house and forgot he ever owned the damn thing, I gave it a shot. And as I plummeted to my death because I didn’t take a camera angle into account, that was the day I gave up on Mario.

Mario stopped symbolizing fun. Mario became a chore. And not so strangely enough, I haven’t looked back. It took all the way until New Super Mario Brothers DS came out for me to even care about Mario again. And that was because it went back to the roots. But the damage had sort of been done. Even NSMB was a fun game, but not an amazing game. I played it to completion, but if you think I bothered with all those red coins like I would have done for Super Mario World… well, I didn’t.

I even bought NSMB Wii, mostly for the part of me that still forgets how hard it is to get four people to actually sit down and game for an extended period of time… and if you do, good luck getting that same team back. I’ve played it to World 5 with some random marines my grandma invited over for Thanksgiving, and well, I’ll never seen THEM again. Yeah, don’t ask.

And it was only until reading the Galaxy 2 previews that I saw something I hadn’t seen in Mario, or even in gaming, in a long time – Fun. Clean, simple, child-like fun. I guess it sort of tapped a part of me I’d locked away with my NES. And that’s where the title of this blog comes in. I’m rediscovering Mario.

I found out my employer’s game library had Super Mario 64 DS in it, and I borrowed it. I suppose this is as “perfect” as Super Mario 64 can ever be. It’s still wonky, I still curse at the camera and the controls, but as a whole, I suppose I’m having fun. I’m past the first Bowser battle. Although, I am starting to struggle with finding stars.

And why put myself through this? Why go back to the game I clearly hated when it’s a new game that catches my eye? Because rediscovering Mario isn’t about hopping right in at the nearest point of entry. It’s kind of stupid sounding, but the quest is greater than that. I want to see what I’ve missed. I want to be able to follow his progression to Galaxy 2. I can’t say that I’m going to finish 64 DS, though. It’s already frustrating.

And despite the latent criticisms, I’m still going to look up Super Mario Sunshine. I’m going to play the first Galaxy because I want context for Galaxy 2. Not from a story point of view or anything, but I just feel like you can’t hop on a plane, have a layover in Dallas, and then say you’ve been to Texas. There’s a journey here. There are levels, songs, and even characters that those who have been loyal to Mario will know, and I wouldn’t, otherwise. And I’m the type of gamer who can’t handle knowing that I’m missing out on something, miniscule as it may be.

So what’s up, Mario? I missed you, buddy.   read

12:28 AM on 02.25.2010

Love/Hate: Guile

Yep, I know. This monthly musing is sooooo 2009. But that's how I roll, so don't hate, hater.

What would develop for me into a love/hate relationship with Street Fighter II's Guile began, in fact, when Street Fighter II: Turbo came out for the Super Nintendo. Guile had always been my second main in the original, but I found that in the follow-up, I suddenly wasn't able to maintain my win ratio with the man who broke the sound barrier with his arms. I didn't know the term at the time, (I was in middle school) nor could I comprehend it's real meaning -- Guile had been nerfed.

But that was the only the beginning.

The many shades of Guile: Constipated and sexually ambiguous.

I think to really explain how it began, I need to provide a little background. I'm a very casual Street Fighter player. I love playing competitively with friends who don't take the game too seriously (I have verrrry few of these left), but in a tournament setting, or even in Street Fighter IV's online lobbies, I don't do so hot. I win probably 3 outta 10 times.

What originally attracted me to Street Fighter II was the varied characters, each representing a nation, with their different move sets, the deep fighting system, and maybe most of all, their back stories. What a dumb reason to like a fighting game, eh?

Which leads me back to Guile. If you're tellin' me I need to get to my point, here it is: Over the years, Guile had devolved. I WANT to like him, to see what I saw in him in Street Fighter II... But the truth of the matter is, he's become a caricature of himself, an American, and to rock Guile in today's climate, you need to be able to ROCK Guile.

Let's break it down. I've got three main categories I'm gonna cover as I walk you through a history of Guile. Appearance, and voice, backstory, and technical.

Let's start with appearance.


Guile didn't always have small countries in his pecs. In the orignal Street Fighter II, you could even describe him as being a little lanky. He moved very fluidly with this weird kind of circular shuffle, and his hair was over the top, but not so much that it could be a selectable character on its own accord.

But I think the real damning evidence is what's happened to Guile's jaw line over the years. His lips and his chin have sunk further and further down his face with each iteration, as though his designers felt that to truly portray the quintessential American badass, he needed to have a scowl roughly equivalent to the American treasury deficit.

Guile's strange ass angles and omni-present jaw made him a freak of nature in Street Fighter II Turbo and beyond, and only in more recent entries in the series has any effort been made to correct that. But still, I submit to you, Street Fighter IV Guile:

I'll kick your ass... with MAH JAWBONE!

And let's not even talk about his animated presence. But that leads us right up into another problem area: His voice. Guile's high pitched "Sonic Boom" was the only indication of his voice in the original game, and while it was a little higher than maybe we expected, I think it gave him character. Even Ken and Ryu had more bass in their collective voice.

Then they compensated for that. And holy hell did they compensate. Guile now sounds like the gorilla he was apparently meant to be. Adding insult to injury are the games like Capcom Vs SNK where they made the brilliant decision to let a Japanese voice actor speak in English: "EASY OPERATION!" Really Guile? What does that even mean!?

In the present day, his "Mission... START!" line isn't much better. Remember like, a gajillion words ago when I called him a caricature? Maybe that's obvious. Maybe he's supposed to be taken as a joke of an American soldier, obsessed with the mission, incapable of putting together sentences, and sporting pink camouflage like a war's about to start in Barbie's dream house.

That would be less insulting if that was always the case, but the problem is that it wasn't. What drew me to Guile was actually his depth of character! That's right, there was a time when Guile was a man on a real mission. His best buddy Charlie had "died" at the hands of M. Bison, and left with only his dog tags, he embarked on a quest for answers and revenge.

Back then, when he told Chun Li's busted up ass to "go home and be a family man," that was some raw shit, to be blunt. He didn't mean for his enemies to do that because they couldn't fight, he was projecting his own desires. But the mission came first. Charlie came first. That was deep stuff, kind of moving, when you really think about it. And his ending was one of the best.

But flash forward what, 20 years? Guile is STILL searching for Charlie. They haven't refreshed his storyline ONE iota since the original Street Fighter II. In SFIV, Guile's encounter with Abel in SFIV tells us everything we need to know: Capcom gave up on Guile as my second main, and as a top-tiered character worth caring about.

I'm not saying I need epic RPG-like stories in my fighting games. But a little character evolution would be, you know, a nice touch. Ken and Ryu have evolved. So has Chun Li. Guile, like the jar head that he is, is still pressing on, looking for Charlie, who's been avoiding him by hanging out in cross-over games and the Alpha series. You're a dick, Charlie.

Which leads us to my last gripe - technical. Guile was one of the first characters in a fighting game to be considered a "charge" character. All of his moves involve holding the directional pad and releasing when the time is right. To play him is to bait your opponent into your charge, or to plan your moves so far in advance that a charge begins before the first hit of the combo and is unleashed with deadly accuracy. A good Guile player is ALWAYS holding a charge.

But somewhere at the point where super combos were introduced, charge characters got freaking wonky.

How do you even DO this? I suck, that must be the answer. I gave Guile my best effort, but with only being able to reliably bust out his special a third of the time I wanted it to come out, to stay competitive, Guile had to go. You can't depend on a move this complex, unless like I said at the beginning, you really know how to rock it. And more power to those of you that do, I'm sure you would wipe the floor with my Ken.

I thought I'd close this with a little bit of journalism. See, when I said Guile had been nerfed, at the time, it was a gut feeling, but now, it's proven FACT, with science and journalism the judge and jury. Now, I know life-bars have changed over time, but... The following numbers are the number of roundhouse level flash kicks it takes for Guile to KO an opponent throughout his years in the Street Fighter series, at full handicap levels:

Street Fighter II (SNES): FIVE. Just five.
Street Fighter II Turbo (SNES): NINE. It jumped from FIVE to NINE.
Super Street Fighter II (SNES): Seven. These were not the doubles, either.
Street Fighter Alpha 3 (PSP): NINE. Back to 9. Seriously.
Street Fighter IV: 8. Again, single damage.

There you have it. And if this whole thing was tl;dr, this picture and the headline are worth my entire post.


12:40 AM on 02.19.2010

Uncharted 2: The Romance Factor

Author's Note: This post contains heavy, heavy spoilers for the Uncharted series.

Uncharted wouldn't be what it is without a little romance. Sure, we signed up for guns, acrobatics, blowing up heavy artillery, and punching snow demons in the face. But, and many of us wouldn't admit to this, we need to see Nathan Drake make the moves on a lady almost as much as we need those things. After all, Uncharted is an action flick turned video game, and like his manly predecessors, Drake needs to embody just about everything we wish we were, and that includes a hot, witty woman at his side.

The face of man who gets the ladies.

But where Uncharted treaded that familiar ground like a bowl of corn flakes, Uncharted 2 threw a little spice into the 2% milk of our expectations.

Let's take a look at some action protocol, shall we? Indiana Jones (Crystal Skull be damned) had a different love interest in each movie. Metal Gear Solid 4 dropped Meryl's interest in Snake with a single line and a gesture; Batman couldn't get a second date if he tried, and Megan Fox may have lived through two Transformers movies, but just you wait.

If the greats (read: Not Transformers) could just drop women from scripts like two ton bricks, why would Nathan Drake ever have to look back on Elena Fisher? After all, enter Chloe Frazer. Every bit more woman than Elena ever was, Chloe is drop dead sexy, her voice is that perfect level of husky that will sound disgusting by the time she reaches 60, and both her wit and her way with a gun are nothing to scoff at.

This woman makes the internet happy.

At first, that's exactly what Uncharted 2 does. There isn't a mention, or so much as a nod to Elena, and we can all safely assume that her voice actress had been written out of a job. It's business as usual in the action industry. But then...

BAM. Drake turns a corner and comes face to face with she which should not be. With a few very convincing lines about journalism, Elena has been written into Uncharted 2. This scene is fantastic, by the way. In almost literally less than two minutes of dialog, we as viewers accept Elena's presence in war-torn Borneo of all places, get a quick one-line vague answer to what happened between the two games, establish a rivalry between Elena and Chloe, and are given reason to wonder whether or not Elena and her camera-man are an item. Holy crap.

So what has Naughty Dog DONE? Drake is now faced with not one, but two female protagonists. The possibilities are fairly finite. One, none... or both, but it was probably safe to rule out the menage a trois right there. The game does a great job letting you oscillate between the two ladies. One steps in, the other steps out. Drake's insistence on playing the hero and going to rescue Chloe send us spiraling in her direction, but Chloe's out-and-out refusal to be saved made us slide back toward Elena.

The girl next door you took that slightly awkward picture of where her mouth was open in a totally weird way, but you kinda like her anyway.

Who did YOU want Drake to end up with? I haven't done any research, but I bet a lot of the internet sided with Chloe. For reasons I've already stated, she one-upped Elena in a lot of ways. But... I think there were a lot of subtle things about Chloe that just told us it wasn't going to work out. And this was a very brave decision on Naughty Dog's part. I really credit them for introducing the sex and then taking it away.

Get past her great ass, and you find Chloe is temperamental, stubborn, and self-serving. The contrast to Elena is stark, and if you haven't figured it out by the end of the game, the scene where they're debating whether or not to fight or flee hits you over the head with it. Nathan Drake is a self-sacrificing hero who wants to see things end right not only for himself, but for the world. Elena has the same philosophy. Chloe, not so much.

The end of the game pulls a fantastic trick on you as well. The perfect answer to letting Drake have the woman who isn't perfect for him but keeps the sex appeal in the game is to simply kill Elena. One grenade and a bloody blouse later, Elena is on her way to meet Aeris. We fade out to a funeral and... well, you know how it ends. With the kiss he never got last time.

The inevitable Uncharted 3 should prove interesting. Will we feel comfortable enough with Elena that she can be made into the sexy symbol? I mean, she's nothing to scoff at, and a swimsuit shot might be particularly eye-opening. Or will Naughty Dog stay classy, and tell you that Uncharted doesn't need sex to sell. Or... Perhaps she'll simply fade away to that land where action heroines go, and a new lady will enter the fray. Only time will tell.

The author of this article finishes games 3 months to 3 years after they are relevant and then wonders why he finds himself speaking to an empty room.   read

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