Monday, March 14, 2011

VIDEO GAMES: Notable Games That Are Dead to Me.

Having been gaming since the era of the NES, I've found that two things have changed my tastes in gaming. First, a natural change that's occurred simply from getting older and having experienced much. Second, a change in the industry and the way games are made. There's a bit more too it than that, but these are the base causes of change for me.

So, I dedicate this list to games, series, or even genres that I used to like that are effectively dead to me, along with the reasons for why.

Let's begin...

Dragon Quest series (previously known in the U.S. as Dragon Warrior): As one of the series I considered my favorite, and one that holds a game I regard as one of my top three favorite games of all time (Dragon Quest 4), it's only fitting that I start here.

This series only recently died to me. After finishing Dragon Quest 9, I've found that the direction they've taken with the series leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A lot of its core mechanics haven't changed, but what they've tacked on has created a lot of tedium in the series. Considering that just a year ago I played and loved Dragon Quest 5, I know it's recent additions that have caused my recent dislike.

Much as I'll miss the good times early games brought, this series is essentially dead to me...

Final Fantasy series: This series lasted an even shorter time than Dragon Quest did, though still noteworthy. It died for me after I finished FF9, which is a tad ironic considering I didn't necessarily dislike 9 (I wasn't that big a fan of it either). When I saw the tedious and boring direction the rest of the series was headed in, I knew I'd find no more enjoyable games therein.

And since this bears mentioning, for me this series' pinnacle was Final Fantasy 6, not 7. The combat felt more interesting, the artistic direction was far better, the plot more engaging (and less narrowly focused), and the characters more interesting from personality to back-story. It's no surprise this is one of my top favorite games.

But with the rest of the games failing to live up to the pedigree of its SNES fore-bearers (excluding the surprisingly boring FF5), the series is now dead to me...

FPS genre (mostly): I'll try to keep this short. Started with Descent series (if that counts), moved on to Doom (shareware), Quake, Quake 2, jumped ship to N64 for some Golden Eye and Turok 2, came back to PC for Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, and some Counter-Strike, had some Halo in there somewhere, and finally some Half-Life 2 (episode add-ons included) and Call of Duty 4.

This genre is dead to me mostly due to lack of substance, overkill of violence and gore (which, ironically, I appreciated more as an early teen), lack of story (or lack of story that appeals to me), and simple boredom. Given that I've lost my interest in competitive, and that the genre has very little online cooperative play, there's multiple reason why this genre is dead to me.

(Note: Wondering about the "mostly" bit? I may have a last dip in the genre, courtesy of Golden Eye for the Wii. Being the cheap person I am, I'm waiting for it to drop in price).

World of Warcraft: Yeah... for all intents and purposes, this should have been one I never got into in the FIRST place!

For those familiar with the series, I got into it during the implementation of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Started with a 10-day free trial to see what all the fuss was about. My initial impressions of it were poor, but having researched the game a bit before delving in, I had one goal before I intended to quit: Getting druid cat form at level 20. Much to Blizzard's luck, that was what essentially hooked me in, and what followed would be a bittersweet experience.

The sweet parts consisted of traveling. I'm a sucker for exploration, and this game had plenty. The game had a plethora of fun stuff for the exploration fan.

The bitter parts came mostly at the end, and set off a bit of a reaction and a "eureka!" moment. Spending some time at the level cap trying out some end-game content that I teetered from enjoying to disliking, it all came to a head about a year or two after my initial first steps into the game. First, I realized the game wasn't really all that fun, and that my choice of character sort of duped me into ignoring its rather glaring shortcomings. Second, end-game content echoed of something that I've come to despise in games: grinding, though at this point it stealthily replaced it with repetition-based gear grinding rather than the "see the world, do different things" feel of level grinding (it's all about execution). Third, I had become withdrawn from the social atmosphere of the game... though I wasn't really pulled into it that much to begin with.

So, after much teetering back and forth, going in and out of the game, I can officially declare it dead to me and avoid going back ever again.

Though it's left a bit of an empty spot for me, and I can only hope it's replaced by the no-subscription-fees Guild Wars 2.

Castlevania series: Started from the early days, and loved Castlevania 4 and Symphony of the Night, as well as some handheld entries in the series.

But for loss of direction (notable in the 3D titles), increased macabre atmosphere, and... other things, this series is dead to me.

Mega Man series and closely-related spin-offs):
Played all entries from 1 to 8, though felt that after 6 it lost its stride.
Entry 9 returned some luster, but so hardcore it was I could not abide.
X spinoff series got me through SNES era, and these I found more divine,
Though once it hit the Playstation era, even these began to decline.
The Zero series for GBA created a spark, a rekindle, though just a little,
But it was never strong enough to last, and my interest did finally whittle.

Many great memories it held, playing a boy robot, blue from toe to head,
But with all its best moments behind him, to me, this series is now dead.

Golden Sun series: Admittedly a short series, so I'll keep this shorter. First game, okay. Second game, great story, but not exactly engaging in terms of gameplay. Third game said to be too easy... and that translates into a series that perhaps just died for me.

I may be early in writing its personal epitaph, but it's not likely to get better than it ever was...

Elder Scrolls series: These games grabbed my attention more than they should have, but in the end I realized how little value I found in them, and how simplistic they were in areas they shouldn't have been. They are now dead to me.

So, with many series, and even full genres, that are dead to me, what do I look forward to? I'll save that for my next post, perhaps...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Video Game Design Thoughts, part 1: Accessibility and Feedback.

Game design thought of the day *** break-it-in versus one-size-fits-most.

Having played video games since the NES days, I've noticed that games often fall into one of two camps: simple to get into and feel your way around, or something where you have to learn the nuances of what the game expects you to learn. Or, to over-simplify, easy to learn or hard to learn.

Let's do a comparison here. Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Secret of Mana, the latter being the inspiration behind this post. They're both very respected games, one being considered one of the best games of its era, while the other is a less-known title beloved by those few who stumbled upon it. Both games utilize similar perspective, movement, and even gameplay... except that this is where I start using quotation marks.

Legend of Zelda is a simple game for the most part, with combat being straightforward, the menus being quite simple, and overall being very accessible; something that strong enough for a hardcore gamer but made for a casual. Its only real drawback in terms of accessibility is some rather bizarre puzzles that probably shouldn't have been included in the first place.

Secret of Mana, on the other hand, is quite a bit more complex. The beginning highlights this quite notably, as the first moment you're thrust into combat can be a confusing ordeal depending on your background. Being someone that's played plenty of RPGs in the past, particularly from this game's developer, I figured out rather quickly what was going on: the game was programmed such that the player had to wait a certain amount of time between weapon swings for full effect (which is pretty much required), had to time attacks based on how recently the enemy had been hit (more critical for later enemies), and had to realize that actual hits to an enemy weren't shown on an enemy until roughly once every two seconds. I actually had a friend who was a Legend of Zelda fan, but couldn't get into Secret of Mana because of how complex and inaccessible it was in his eyes. Beyond that, the menu system likely didn't help matters much either.

So with this comparison out of the way, here's the design thought for today: How easy is it for a player to get into your game? Is the game giving player cues and feedback as to how he/she is doing? Or does the game has a bit of an invisible learning curve, where the player is expected to learn certain rules and nuances?

Friday, December 17, 2010

MOVIES: Legend of the Guardians, and why it's better than most people say

I'm not swayed by media often. To me, much of the media is in a downward death-spiral, dragged down by excessive amounts of filth, lack of soul and heart, and--likely most of the source--cashing in. Doesn't matter if it's books, music, video games, or movies, I always find myself in a bit of a niche in many of these media forms... and often find niches that remain woefully under-tapped.

Recently, I discovered one such rare niche with the movie Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'hoole. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a simple by-the-numbers childrens/family movie with the odd distinction of being a tad more violent than most films of its class.

And yet, this kind of film has been done before a long time ago...

In the 1980s, there was something of a burst of family films that didn't "sugar-coat" the story. Neverending Story was brutal and downright scary at times, even with some levity to counteract it. Land Before Time remains one of the most gritty, yet still accessible, animated films in history (and ironically spawns one of the worst chain of terrible sequels in the history of the medium). And, of course, a special mention goes to The Secret of NiMH.

Yet between that decade and the current time, I can think of nothing that holds the rare distinction of being a gritty, dark, yet poignant family film. Yes, I've witnessed much of the Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks films, but lets face it: Lion King only dark moments occur when Scar was in close enough proximity (something which hasn't been pulled off so well since Sleeping Beauty), The Incredibles embodies too much inspiration from cartoons and comics to be taken too seriously (that's superheroes for you), and Dreamworks... well, I'll concede that How to Train Your Dragon has its moments, but isn't even close.

Where Legend of the Guardians makes its mark is that it's tied closely to character development. Its strengths lie in keeping characters true to their personalities, and their development a function of that. The situations presented feel powerful enough to strike home the idea that the characters choices amplify who they are. This sounds simple on the surface, but rarely do you see such character development occur for both a protagonist ("good guy") and an antagonist ("bad guy") that are thrust in the same situation, until one choice splits them apart, sending them down different paths which they each chose to remain on.

For all the simplicity of the story flow, and how poorly the rare few scenes of levity seemed to have been crafted (ergo, I didn't laugh much), the character development and themes in the movie became a shining example of what's missing in most modern family movies: thematic elements that are deeply rooted in the characters themselves, not just the plot.

While my favorite movie this year may still be How to Train Your Dragon, for its wonderful balance of plot, action, and humor, Legend of the Guardians will take a place as one of the rare, few movies where I was moved to tears by a deep, thematic truth. This is the mark of a movie where the heart and soul put into it make it better than the sum of its parts.

Monday, August 30, 2010

MEDIA: The Marketing Machine, and Why it is Despised.

Marketing is everywhere. This fact is indisputable. From the early days of people shouting out about the wares they're selling in a marketplace, to the modern-day plaster ads almost everywhere, the marketing machine is almost as old as mankind.

Marketing itself isn't bad, since in and of itself it's merely a way of getting your product noticed, thus ideally making the seller happy to acquire cash and the buyer happy to acquire an item.

Emphasis on IDEALLY.

With marketing everywhere, it's a raging behemoth that ranges from simplistic awareness creation promising little more than what is shown (think grocery store ads), to entire, massive, elaborate ads that may often be a complete scam.

Having grown up with media, I've witnessed the marketing machine personally in several aspects. When I was growing up, video games often employed a simplistic form of marketing: name recognition. When the original Nintendo system became popular, games that sold well would often have sequels released later. The most notable of these was MegaMan, managing to span six full games before moving on to another system and getting a spin-off series. Though a bit shameful, this particularly series pretty much lived up to it's pedigree, each game pretty much built on the same formula as the one before it, except different levels and a slight retooling.

Other times, this was employed in absolutely shameful ways, such as Double Dragon 5, which had a tenuous tie at best with its predecessors (it wasn't even in the same genre!).

Switching gears to something more mainstream, there's a form of the marketing machine that's become quite insidious in the film industry. In movies, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars have become (or will become, in the case of the latter film) notorious for re-release schedules that seek to milk all they can out of the audience. For Lord of the Rings, it started out simple enough with theatrical DVD releases of each movie. Then came the extended editions, which was understandable but problematic, since these versions could've been released at the same time as the theatrical versions (there have been standard and director's cut releases in the past). By itself, people could let that slide. But then, the Blu-Ray version came out... theatrical length, not extended edition. The review score alone shows that much of the online populace have caught on, and demand nothing less than at least having the extended edition as an option, one way or the other.

In another scenario, a supposedly minor edit from one version to another changed the face of another film production. BBC, being well known for their nature documentary series, releases another one, much to the delight of many people. However, Discovery Channel acquired the rights to re-release it, and as with the Planet Earth series they decided to change the narration. Why? No one knows but them, though it can only be guessed they were going for name appeal (because more people know of Oprah Winfrey than David Attenborough). Either way, from both my experience, and the experience of many others, the move was both bad for the audience, and everyone else for that matter. But who knows, maybe they got more money from it. I sincerely hope not, though.

In closing, I'll tell you the sad tale of what befell one company when marketing took over.

There once was a game developer named New World Computing. They weren't a very big company, nor the very best, but they were successful in their own right and had two popular franchises (technically one with a spin-off series) under their belt.

But the leader of the company had big aspirations. He dreamed of games played online in a massive virtual environment, something that was only starting to happen in the game industry. To achieve these goals, he would need to acquire backing from a publisher.

He went to 3DO, a company that had recently failed in their hardware business attempt, but had developed a respectable MMORPG; exactly the direction New World Computing wanted to take their franchise! The two companies talked, and eventually New World Computing was bought by 3DO and became part of the family.

It all went well at first, but slowly things worsened. 3DO began to impose tighter deadlines on the company. Throughout this initial threat, NWC still managed to release some good games, even if not polished as well as they'd like. But as the deadlines grew tighter and tighter, and the demands higher and higher, the quality fell further and further. At some point, the demands reached a point where the work was four times beyond what the company should be expected to make in such a timespan!

In the end, NWC never got to make that MMO they dreamed of creating, and soon ceased to exist altogether. When the 3DO ship sank, NWC went with it.

Now their franchise is in the hands of another company, not much better off than it was before.

In the end, the marketing department is said to have been the final nail in the coffin for 3DO, as their insistence on deadlines and numbers left no room for the quality that gamers craved.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

POLITICS: Information Misinterpretation.

Despite what the title may make you believe, this won't really deal much with politics itself or the media. Yet both will be key players in this post, particularly because I will be mentioning a hotly-debated topic here.

So, I was discussing with a friend something about Arizona's proposed sb1070 immigration law that has been everywhere in the news. Anyway, this discussion went on after a judge blocked portions of the law from going into effect, one of which essentially read, "If an individual is stopped for a violation, and the officer has probable cause to believe the individual is an illegal immigrant, the officer may ask for papers" (poor summary, I know, but you get the idea). However, my friend interpreted that part of the law as meaning, "An officer may stop anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant."

Thus, I promised to look it up online. A Google search and several re-reads of a tightly-worded legal document later, I find that what I heard was correct, meaning a person had to be stopped for another violation before immigration status could be checked.

Admittedly, he wasn't concerned one way or the other, but I can imagine a simple interpretation like this being the focal point for someone who wouldn't ordinarily be concerned about the actual wording to go up-in-arms over a misinterpretation.

Definitely something to keep in mind, especially since there are rumors that even certain politicians didn't read the actual proposed-law in full before they decided whether or not to attack it.

For reference, look up the original text at sb1070 is the original bill, and hb2162 is a revising of that bill (supposedly the revision came April 30th, which seems to be after it hit the media).

Best to study an issue at its source before deciding whether you support it or are against it, so as to avoid letting hysteria engulf your thinking first.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

MOVIES: Month of the Animated Movie Trailer.

It seems that June is the month when all of the animation studios--both good and bad, known and unknown, new and older-than-the-hills--decide it's time to release a trailer for an upcoming film of theirs. One even decided to release ANOTHER trailer, just months after their previous first trailer. The list includes upcoming films such as Tangled, Rio, Alpha & Omega, Smurfs, and a second trailer for Legend of the Guardians. Here's a quick, quick synopsis of my response to each trailer.

Tangled: Interesting, to say the least, but the finished product could swing either way. I'm betting critic average response will be a few notches below Bolt (which sits at 88%), and viewer response may be about the same, give or take. As for me... no idea. Not that interested, but not repulsed either. Speaking of which, I still need to watch Bolt...

Alpha & Omega: This movie will fail. I could smell the fail from the moment I laid eyes on the first picture (didn't know it was possible to give an animated wolf such a bad hairdo that it could look like a creepy, dull flower). Critical panning and tepid viewer response are practically guaranteed, not to mention crude humor will abound. I certainly won't be watching it.

Rio: The good new is it seems it may be a bit above the quality of the last two Shrek movies. The bad news is it shows signs of containing similar crude humor, so don't expect this to vie for a How To Train Your Dragon or Kung Fu Panda level of quality. Still, it'll become a success among the viewers I'm sure.

Smurfs: Not much of a trailer here (technically a teaser), so too early to tell. Still... the animation style that was shown has me doubting how this will turn out...

Legend of the Guardians: The new trailer shows more balance between character personality/development and an epic storyline, so this trailer has me a bit more hopeful than usual. Still, I can't believe it's being headed by the people behind Happy Feet. *shudder*

Rango: Uh... what the... I think this film is stuck in some sort of flux. In fact, I don't know what to think of the trailer (the recent one, released June 29th). The art direction's actually surprisingly good for the style of film it is, but in that same breath leaves me unable to know whether it will turn out well or become a weird outlier. Unique for sure, yet surprisingly hard to tell where this will go.

Megamind: Think of this as Shrek rebooted... but with blue alien styles, a more antagonistic main character, and, well, lower expectations from me. Along with that, I'm expecting mediocre response from critics, but passable response from audiences. Doesn't appeal to me, though.

That's it for my impressions. I'm intentionally leaving Despicable Me out of the list due to its imminent release, and the bucket load of trailers out already.

Friday, May 7, 2010

MOVIES: A Trailer to Feast the Eyes and Ears.

Who knows what the passage of time will do to the movie at hand, as more than a decade of being subjected to promotional materials has taught me that an excellent preview does not equal an excellent movie.

But regardless,
I'd have to say this is perhaps the most awe-inspiring trailer I've seen in ages!

Almost makes it hard to believe this is the same studio behind Happy Feet (a movie that's about as ludicrous as its name).