My year-end retrospectives are slipping later and later. I’ve limited this post to console games, hoping to write more in subsequent posts about the many browser games that occupied my lunch hours. Perhaps if I wrote about the games as I played them I wouldn’t spend so much time trying to cram everything into one entry. A goal for 2011, perhaps…
Rock Band 2
There were new entries to the Rock Band / Guitar Hero franchises this year, but I didn’t get any (until Christmas, but that lies outside the purview of this summary). And while I didn’t play RB2 as much this past year as the year prior when it was new to me, I kept going back to it. At the time of this writing, I can say that I have about 582 songs on the various RB/GH games that I own. I have a spreadsheet. I can print out a booklet, like for Karaoke, sort it by artist or title… I really like music. It is a part of me, and I enjoy being a part of it. But I am not talented enough with any instrument to play music the way I feel it. It occurred to me, only recently, that that is why people dance. To be a part of the music without making it. Rock Band is dancing for those of us who can’t dance. I did get to play in a band with two of my siblings this year, and it really does improve the experience exponentially. I’m looking forward to writing about my experiences playing RB3 with my children…
Wii Fit Plus
One feature missing from the first Wii Fit was the ability to assemble a workout routine – every exercise had to be individually picked from the menus. WF+ mostly corrected that oversight. Custom ‘playlists’ can be created, but you are limited in selecting from the yoga and strength exercises only, not any of the aerobic activities or games. That said, the change still saves time and does have the ability to randomly assemble workouts to fit a specified amount of time. WF+‘s additional content is mostly just a collection of new games. However, instead of focusing as much on balance, they seem to offer a mix of aerobic and balance. The game seems to offer a good variety of stretching, strength, aerobic, and balance activities – certainly enough to assemble a twenty-minute workout in the morning before work. Now if I could just figure out how to actually get out of bed those twenty minutes earlier…
Wii Sports Resort
Wii Sports Resort, at its core, is still just a tech demo, like Wii Sports before it. But Resort creates a unified [resort] world in which all of the sports take place. (Wii Fit+ now takes place on the same island.) It is nice to be able to run or cycle around the island and see the various sports venues, kinda ties it all together like a nice rug. Resort can be summed up in the first ten minutes of the game, epitomizing everything both good and bad about Nintendo. Resort is the demo platform for the Wiimote adapter that allows the Wii to track the controller movement in space, something that probably should have been part of the controller from the beginning. Without this attachment, the Wii only knows where the controller is relative to the IR sensor on the tv, when it is pointed towards the sensor. The Wiimote also has tilt sensors and an accelerometer. In many cases, that’s enough to control a game. But there are limitations. The adapter itself shows Nintendo trying to innovate, iterating on their already successful control scheme. But the first five minutes of the game pound your head into the corporate sensibilities that bring us friend codes and warning booklets thicker than the game manuals. The player is forced to sit through an unskippable, five minute demonstration on how to attach the adapter to the bottom of the Wiimote. If you can make it through that, the next five minutes make up for it. (And maybe the preceding five make the next that much more enjoyable.) Your Mii is shown inside an airplane. The cabin door opens, and out you go, diving into the tropical air over the island of Wushu! It is a pretty exhilarating experience, introducing the island to you in such a fashion. It is a bit confusing because you probably have no idea what you are suppose to be doing during your decent, but it definitely leaves you excited when the title screen finally pops up after you land.
So far, the adapter seems to be a useless piece of hardware. I can’t think of any games that require it. I suppose that makes sense from the standpoint that it isn’t built-in – maybe Skyward Sword will support it? But I don’t think it works as well as it should. The game that should be the best – fencing – really doesn’t work very well. Initially, the Wii tracks your ‘sword’ just fine, and you can hack and slash and stab your opponent, even block should you be so inclined. But then the Wii will start to lose your center, and in the midst of a flurry of blows, your Mii will disembowel himself even though you are standing chūdan no kamae in your living room. Slower movements seem to suit the setup just fine, and the archery and Frisbee games are quite delightful. The flying game is also pretty entertaining. I guess the bottom line is that there are some fun games on the disk, and some that are less fun, and it will likely fit into the same place in your collection as Wii Sports before it.
I admit, I take a lot of pride having grown up as an 8-bit gamer. Game design at the time, influenced heavily by the arcade and hardware limitations, had a tendency to offer up brutal player experiences. As with first generation D&D, the object of the game was more about killing the player than completing the game. It wasn’t uncommon to complete a game and be rewarded with a black screen simply decorated with the words “The End”. (Or worse, just “End”, dropping the article – Ikari Warriors I’m looking at you!) 8-bit games were hard (sometimes by fault), limiting lives and continues and having merciless one-touch kills. And I could beat just about everything I ever slotted into my console. Many within the 24-hour rental period allotted by my neighborhood Dillon’s video department. (I could beat Karnov without dying.)
But that was then. We don’t play video games the same way anymore. Design has iterated and improved, and the play experience is usually more fun, less of a chore to be bludgeoned through with mind-numbing perseverance. But by the same token, games are designed to be beaten, and the sense of challenge often feels diluted as a result. Enter Contra IV. It’s not your daddy’s Contra, it’s worse.
Contra was a measuring stick used by my friends to gauge whether someone had earned the right to use turbo without it being considered cheating. (I find myself feeling I might need to define turbo: a controller with a turbo function would simulate repeated button presses while holding down the button.) If you could complete Contra without turbo, you had earned the right to use turbo. I passed the test, but my friend Brent had the fastest finger speed, his ability to “Track & Field” on the buttons was unrivaled in my group of friends. So Contra IV attracts me like the familiar scent of my grandparents’ attic. Except with lots of brutal ways to die.
Contra IV plays just like an 8-bit Contra game, except it adds the verticality of the DS’s second screen to the play field. I must admit, I’ve not completed the game on normal. I finished easy on a whim after getting stuck for a while on stage 4. I’ve completed most of the challenge stages. But completing Contra IV requires one to play the way one played games in the 8-bit days, and we’ve moved away from that. Part of that was playing a bunch of different games in one sitting. Since the games often required one to start from the beginning each time, a player gradually learned and mastered earlier stages while slowly gaining experience to fight through the later ones. But replaying the same material grew tedious. So the player would pull that cartridge and slap in another. It’s harder to do that now, at least for me, since I only keep the game(s) slotted in the DS handy. Contra IV really needs to be installed on the hardware so that it can be played a couple of times every time one picks up the DS before moving on to another game. I finished all of the GBA games I have, so Contra is stewing in its box, waiting to destroy me for my arrogance and past crimes against its brethren.
I really enjoy the experience of Rapture. BioShock captures so much ‘feel’ in its environment, the characters, the way it lets the player interact with it. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I was sold on the idea of the game when I first read about it over a year before it was even released. And while the delivered game was different than that (not even) original pitch, it still exceeded expectations. Last year a sequel was released. The original was pulled out and played again in preparation, this time with the company of the Vintage Game Club. Look there for lots of insightful comments and discussion. I didn’t finish my ‘no Adam’ play through before I received my copy of BioShock 2. While I was handicapped, avoiding most of the plasmids and tonics, I was also avoiding the Big Daddies, which compensated for much of the difficulty. I’ll have to finish that sometime…
The sequel that didn’t need to be made. And it was even made by a different group of designers. There was a certain amount of trepidation accompanying the initial play of BioShock 2. Fortunately, the love, care, and skill of the design team created something that, in many ways, improved on the original source material. Much good discussion can be found over at the Vintage Game Club documenting our collective play through. Aside from tweaking the combat system, there were two main elements of BioShock 2 that I felt most compelling.
The first is the gatherings. Instead of simply rescuing or harvesting the Little Sisters, as a Big Daddy the player can supervise acquired Sisters while they gather Adam. The result is a strategic combat where the player has an opportunity to set defenses, using the many trap oriented weapons and plasmids, before initiating the confrontation. And the sophisticated level design really allows for creative use of the environment. Gatherings are intense, but add a very satisfying spice to the normal flow of play. Related to the gatherings are the Big Sisters. After dealing with a few Little Sisters, a Big Sister will come to stop the player. Her appearance is heralded by a screech, and then the player waits, shaking, for her fearsome arrival. The Big Sister fights are spaced far enough apart that I would forget about them until that scream, and then panic, trying to get to a defensible position or replenish my resources.
The second aspect is the theme of fatherhood. The player character has become a surrogate father for a little sister now grown up, and the game does a really nice job of pulling the right heartstrings and making the player feel responsible for how the girl turns out in the end. Perhaps as a result, I felt compelled to analyze the game based on its use of mythological references, in particular the Rape of Persephone, which I posit is retold in the story of BioShock 2.
BioShock 2 also has one of the best single-player DLC expansions – Minerva’s Den. But I didn’t get to play that until this year, so I will write more about that later.
Shiren the Wanderer
I had never heard of the game Rogue. So I was quite confused when I began hearing the term ‘Rogue-like’ pop up in various podcasts. Often, the conversations would either mention, or be about, Shiren the Wanderer. Eventually, I gleaned enough information about the concept of a Rogue-like that I became quite interested in playing what was reported as being an unforgiving, old-school challenge. It is both. And it is very satisfying to play. Even when you die. (Maybe less so when you lose precious equipment…)
What is a Rogue-like? you may ask. The basic concept of Shiren is a dungeon crawler with randomly generated levels, populated with an assortment of various monsters, treasure, and occasional NPCs. Game flow is turn based, where for every step or action you take as the player, each of the monsters also gets to move or take an action. The main goal is to get to the deepest level of the dungeon, so the main objective on each level is find the exit. Under normal circumstances, only the room the main character, Shiren, is in is revealed, or the immediately adjacent squares when wandering the passages. The game automatically maps the progress of your exploration and keeps track of important information that you have encountered. But the immediate task is always that of survival. As you progress deeper into the dungeons, the monsters get more difficult, so simply making a break for the exits is a quick recipe for death. But fighting and just walking around depletes very limited resources, so success is a formula of wisdom and varying degrees of luck.
The aspect of Shiren, and apparently Rogue-likes in general, that is so engaging is that the player gains experience playing the game in a similar way to the character. Except that while Shiren always starts at level one after being turned into a riceball and eaten, for example, the player retains his experience and leverages it to survive deeper on each subsequent attempt through the dungeon. If emergent gameplay is your thing, it is what the experience of Shiren is all about.
Beginning the game, the player knows nothing other than the basics of moving and fighting and collecting equipment. Through experience, one learns about which monsters to avoid, which to kill first, how to use the various equipment found, which items to stockpile, how to protect food from spoiling, how to level and store equipment for subsequent attempts – how to play the game. After gaining enough proficiency, and having a little bit of luck, a player that originally could barely make it five levels to the first town, can now traverse the main thirty-level dungeon without grinding and using only the equipment and money found. And the tension climbing through those last few floors is exhilarating. Every attempt is a different experience, and everyone who plays the game will come away with griping tales, often tragic, for telling while gathered around the fire – or watercooler…
Lego Indiana Jones
Lego games are almost becoming an annual tradition for me. I enjoyed the first Star Wars game, was a little bored with the second, and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the Batman game in 2009. But how would Indiana Jones, the game I skipped, fare in retrospect? Pretty well. Indiana Jones is not a linear point in the evolution of the series between Star Wars and Batman. While it iterates on the non-Force elements of Star Wars, mixing special abilities and weapon types across the ensemble of characters, the level design is more focused on exploration and the discovery of hidden goodies – appropriate for a game based on the escapades of an archaeologist. The game also incorporates some characters’ phobias, such as Dr. Jones’ fear of snakes, which is a nice touch and adds an extra layer to some of the environmental puzzles. There is also a cute camouflage feature and a hat feature that makes a nod to Indy’s disguise trope from the movies. Lego Indiana Jones wound up being a more entertaining game than I expected, being different from both its predecessors and successor in ways that embodied the essence of the license. While the levels are often rather long, I enjoyed the pace of the game from the beginning to the last obsessive bonus completion. While I won’t be going to Lego Hogwarts (I’ve somehow managed to completely avoid Harry Potter) I am curious about the new Clone Wars game. Can’t be worse than the latest animated series, right…?
World of Goo
When last I wrote of World of Goo I had only played the demo. Last summer I finally managed to scrape together the necessary points to download the full version of the game and I was not disappointed. I love everything about the game, from the art style, to the music, to the level design – except for maybe the level towards the end where you have to build around the spinning head thing. My daughter loves it too. I was a bit worried how she would react to some of the dark imagery – squishing a giant goo to break it apart into a score of small goos, etc. – but she seemed to be unfazed. While she skipped a lot of levels to progress through the game, there are only a finite number of skips available. Eventually she was able to pass enough levels to get to the end. We both really enjoy the Information Superhighway chapter. For Christmas we gave my daughter this wonderful goo beanie. Most excellent. As is the game. Now available on a host of platforms, so if you haven’t yet played it, get it and do so.
Dragon Quest V
2010 marked the US release of Dragon Quest IX. Building up to that, a lot of attention was paid to the recent DS ports of DQIV and DQV. I believe it was Jeremy Parish’s GameSpite post that sold me on DQV. The key aspect of the game is not a system mechanic, but a story device. Properly dressed in the stylish trappings of a Dragon Quest game is a story about three generations of a family. It’s not about some random Hero and his random assortment of motley friends. It’s about a boy, who is loved and protected by his father. It’s about the boy as a young man, the friendships he cultivates and the love he finds. It’s the young man as a father, protecting his own family and inheriting his father’s legacy. It’s about that man’s children, and how as a family, with the aid of their friends, they will save the world. But the game doesn’t tell you all of these relationships and expect you to take it on faith, it lets you experience the caring and loss and joy for yourself. With children of my own, perhaps I can appreciate the game more now than I would have twenty years ago.
There is a point in the game where the player chooses a bride, from three potential mates. I kept a save file from this point so that I could replay the second half of the game with the other two options. The choice doesn’t affect the story – the game plays out almost identically – but the flavor of the family structure (and the hair color of the offspring) changes. Worth checking out, but maybe not completely playing through – at least not back-to-back-to-back.
Zack & Wiki
Zack & Wiki came out at the end of the Wii’s first year (about six to eight months after supply started to catch up with demand and the hardware could actually be found without divination). Being an early release, it makes extensive use of the Wii’s motion control capabilities. Unlike most of the other waggle infused games at that time, Z&W (generally) nails the control scheme. But – probably due to the game’s hyper, cute, anime art style – most gamers looked right past it and the game faded quickly into obscurity. Except for those few who played it, and now champion its virtues. It was that word-of-mouth that sold the game to us, though the game wound up sitting on the shelf, mostly unplayed, for years before I finally managed to give it the attention it deserved.
Z&W is a point-and-click puzzle game where the player leads sky pirate Zack and his magical monkey friend Wiki through various environments seeking treasure. While the first puzzles are simple and straight forward, they quickly become rather challenging – but not in a random Deus ex machina fashion. Several of the more complex puzzles offer multiple strategies, in case the player fails to pick up on the more spectacular solution. But failure is brutal, and many times untelegraphed, forcing the player to restart the level. It is always wise to keep a handful of continue cards, especially for some of the later levels, as an insurance policy against untimely demise at the end of a long and complicated level.
What makes the game so appealing, aside from the excellent level design and fun characters, is the control scheme. In order to interact with the environment and use the many and varied tools, the player must use the Wiimote to mimic the movement one would make in such a situation. While instructions are usually provided on how to hold and move the controller, sometimes figuring out the movement is part of the puzzle (in which cases it is almost always intuitive – so long as you are intuiting the proper response). Oddly enough (although not really, considering it seems to be a uniform gripe for the Wii), the times when the motion control fails are instances such as sword fighting, where the player movements are too much for the system to handle and imprecise control inevitably leads to bloody failure. As a whole, however, Z&W is a fun and challenging puzzle game that actually gets some legitimate use out of the Wii’s hardware.
Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Spirit Tracks is the sequel to Phantom Hourglass. Not directly a sequel as in terms of story, but in terms of art style and gameplay. While the world is different, many assets are reused. In many ways, it feels like a collection of all of the ideas that didn’t fit, due either to size or appropriateness, in Phantom Hourglass. I really enjoyed how well PH incorporated the DS hardware into the control and game experience. While the basic controls are the same in Spirit Tracks, some of the novelty type experimentation with puzzles is absent. While I was a bit saddened, I understand that tricks like the map puzzle can only be done once. That said, the dungeons in ST are much more challenging and intricate, I think, than its predecessor, which is its own sort of satisfying. During the dungeons the player controls Link and a possessed suit of armor to solve the environment puzzles in a cooperative fashion, utilizing the various characteristics of the different armors and Link’s tools. The overworld gimmick for this game ditches boats in favor of trains. I’m still not sure how I feel about the trains. It’s fun playing conductor to a point, but then it just takes forever to get from place to place. The crafted landscapes are enjoyable while traveling, but the random combats distract from the sight-seeing. While warps exist, both the entrances and exits are in fixed locations, which limits their usefulness. At least in Phantom Hourglass warping could be initiated anywhere, even though the destination was fixed. In conclusion, I enjoyed Spirit Tracks, but I feel less inclined to revisit its incarnation of Hyrule.
I played a dozen games last year. If we count Wii Fit+ as a previously played game (it’s really just an expansion pack), nine of the games were new to me (Zack & Wiki being the only game that had previously been in my collection before last year). All of the games I played were on current generation hardware (sorry PS2 and GBA). The Wii was apparently my console of choice, being home to five of the games. The DS was close behind with four (tied, really, if you take out Wii Fit+). Which means the Xbox functioned only as a Rock Band server and a bathysphere into Rapture (which is plenty). 2009 marked the official beginning of gaming with my children and 2010 only had one new entry, World of Goo, but that has been a very enjoyable experience. Apparently a game a month is my rate of play at this stage of my life, as twelve is the number two years in a row. I’m not sure the pace of 2011 is off to such a start, but there’s plenty of time yet…