In a parallel universe where video game cartridges (THAT ARE GOLD) are sentient beings, The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past is out renting a car from Hertz and going on a road trip with its underage friends Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, and Earthbound piling in the backseat.
Growing up, winter break meant candy and soda-fueled all-nighters at my cousins’ house in Marin playing Nintendo, reading comics, and covering every available surface with gameboards, cards, and plastic tokens. Today I have boardgame boxes occupying major real estate in three different closets, and I’ve spent significant time of late burning the midnight oil over lengthy Descent and Talisman sessions. But you never forget your first… Or your fifth, for that matter. Mom cleans out closets like nobody’s business, and if it seemed old, underused, or even slightly neglected, out it went.
Before I set up another fleet of Rebel starships in an Armada showdown, I feel the need to reflect upon five games that I haven’t owned or even seen in decades… but that still tug at my heart.
Kings & Things ca. 1987
I was a Games Workshop junkie in middle school. I bought White Dwarf regularly, cut-and-pasting together my own Warhammer cards from its glossy pages, and maintaining a tackle box full of (poorly) painted lead miniatures. I wanted to play every new boardgame that hit the shelves of Gamemasters on Clement St., but after blowing most of my saved allowance on comics and baseball cards, I was too often relegated to the back-of-the-store sale section. This turned over some turds like Judge Dredd and Blood Royale (which may have been fun, in retrospect, but far too complex for a teenager). Then came the day when this little gem fell into my lap.
Kings & Things declared itself a “Fantasy Boardgame with Everything,” and it wasn’t kidding. This box was FULL of cards, pieces, board tiles, and those tiny square pain-in-the-ass cardstock tokens that GW used to love. But the greatest thing about the game, for me, was discovering the ever-changing playing surface generated from random hexagonal tiles. I don’t know if this was the first time this mechanic was employed, but it was certainly my first experience. And I loved it.
Current fate: Unknown, presumably disposed of during one of the off-to-college purges.
Play it again: There are a few sellers on eBay, including this bloke in Delaware who has a near-mint copy for fifty bucks.
Similar current game: Although Kings & Things was reprinted by a European publisher, that version is also out of print. Luckily there are many fine modern games that employ the random tile-generated board. My favorite? Carcassone. Continue reading Board Games I Have Loved and Lost
It is now December 2015, which means it is officially the month of Star Wars. A brand, spanking new Star Wars movie will be in theaters in 13 days. I completely forgot that when new Star Wars movies come out, it’s merchandising effectively consumes our lives. Boba Fett’s Sweet Creamer from CoffeeMate found its way in to my coffee this morning, and it’s probably going to be that way for the next six years. I’m not complaining.
While Star Wars may rule everything around me, there is one piece of multimedia that has made itself a part of my everyday life. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen a new Star Wars game released that has caused as much excitement as EA’s awakening (see what I did there?) of Star Wars Battlefront.
Released for Xbox One, PC, and PlayStation 4, Battlefront puts players in the shoes of both Rebel soldiers and Imperial Stormtroopers across a slew of planets. This reimagining of Star Wars Battlefront is handled by DICE, the same studio responsible for the incredible Battlefield games. The response to the announcement was mostly favorable, although some skeptics were afraid this would just turn in to a Battlefield game with a Star Wars skin.
After weeks of playing the new Battlefront, I can assure you that is not the case. This game reminds of everything I loved about that first Battlefront and more. While there can be a significant learning curve to this game for those familiar with other first person shooters such as Halo, Call of Duty, and even Battlefield, the game makes up for this in a number of ways. Continue reading Battlefront: the Star Wars game you are looking for
As of August 19th, 2012, I have finished the first installment of the Mass Effect trilogy. For most, that won’t mean much, almost as if I was empathizing with the fact that they never finished Super Mario Bros. 3 (even when you were shown how to get easily to World 8 in The Wizard). But the fact is that I didn’t actually start Mass Effect until a month prior. That’s where I deserve the obligatory “Where the fuck have you been?” and “Why the hell were you playing Trials and Fez instead?” Well, I just wasn’t that interested.
Long long ago, in a small duplex way up Old San Jose Rd…
To illustrate why this seems like eons ago, the guy who first showed me a Mass Effect preview has since moved out of the small duplex (where he showed it to me) and into another apartment with a girl, became engaged to this girl, bought a house with the fiance, broke off the engagement and moved out, and I haven’t seen him since. The ex-fiance has since been through two more guys, who each had their own set of issues, which would sometimes boil over at parties, making me uncomfortable and want to leave, so now I don’t drink at her parties just in case the mood strikes me to drive somewhere else. Without a daytime television program, it takes the better part of a decade to witness that much drama. That wedding I mentioned was set for the day before the Beijing Olympic Summer Games, if that helps set some sort of timeline. I didn’t even have an Xbox back then, and the hottest shit anyone could play was Guitar Hero II (I was a maniac on that orange button).
The Mass Effect preview video I watched wasn’t a trailer so much as it was one of the developers narrating some of the game’s development, specifically how battles would play out. The developer showed how the player would give his or her team commands, both in movement and abilities. One could even choose which weapon his or her team members would use. This was all during battle; while fighting a large robot thing, the developer would essentially pause the game to issue placement and ability commands to his teammates, then take cover and shoot the enemy a few times. Rinse, Repeat.
That looked too involved and not fun. Fable was about the level of depth that I was into. In fact, Fable was about the fucking pinnacle of awesome games for me at the time. I enjoy games where I can upgrade my characters and their weapons, but there is a limit to how deep a management system can be and still hold my interest. I first realized that there can be too much to upgrade and manage when I played Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (made by BioWare, who also made Mass Effect). My character had a lightsaber, and I was ready to make him break something, but upon finding a battle, I had to choose my defensive and offensive attacks from a menu, and order them correctly to successfully parry and strike my opponent. Within two battles, the game had become tedious and cumbersome, so I ejected that disc and moved on to Morrowind. The battles in Morrowind were better since they were action-based instead of real-time-strategy-ish, but even the smallest details around inventory or skill-sets were managed by the player, and every detail was seemingly important. People fucking love SW: KOTOR and Morrowind, and I’m sure they are fantastic games, but the player involvement ran too deep for me to enjoy. And I was instantly reminded of these disappointments when I watched that first video of Mass Effect gameplay, so I decided then, all those eons ago, that it wouldn’t be a game for me. Continue reading Years Late to the Mass Effect Party
Fez is a 2-D side scrolling platformer that gives you control of both the character, Gomez, and the world he lives in. It’s hard to describe the 3-D rotation effect with words, more accurately it’s hard to describe how it affects the gameplay. It’s easy enough to imagine a cube at a perspective so you only see one side, then rotating it so you only see another side, which is how the world is controlled in the game. But in Fez, shifting this perspective can line up paths that were disjoint before, revealing a new path for Gomez to pursue. It’s difficult to describe this mechanic with words and have it make sense in my own head, so this is one you’ll just have to play to really find out what’s going on there.
The artistic style of Fez is directly influenced by 8-bit games from the 80s, so this may not be your game if you’re really into high-end graphics. Gomez is a minimally drawn two-tone (more-toned if you include his magic hat) figure/dude/thing that can move, jump, and climb. He has no special attacks and never levels up. There are no enemies or time limits, and falling from a ledge results in an instant re-spawn from the previous ledge. The game is played at your own pace, and the minimalist design and gameplay are almost comforting, even if a half-hour of exploration goes by with no real progress.
What little background story the game gives at the start reveals that there are cubes strewn about Gomez’s world, and said cubes have been broken into cube-bits, and the cubes and bits must be collected or something shitty will happen to the world. Honestly, that’s about all it tells you. Collecting 8 bits (get it?) will produce a cube, certain amounts of cubes will allow you to open certain doors throughout the game, and the last door before the end credits does not require the full collection. There are also anti-cubes, awards for some of the more difficult puzzles, which also count toward your end-game total.
There’s not much more to say about the game’s content without revealing too much. Below the Metroidvania-ish shell, the game is figuring out that specific pieces of knowledge exist, and if you so choose, finding out how to acquire such knowledge. Sometimes this knowledge is useful somewhere else in the game, and sometimes it just takes up space in your brain.
Finishing the game is not difficult, or at least it is not hard to find enough cubes the see the end credits. Some will find this to be just the right amount of game, play through it purely for the exploration experience, and be done with it. Without spoiling anything, or at least trying not to, I highly recommend that everyone do this first. Just finish it because you can, before it gets frustrating enough for internet research, and while it still is a satisfying experience. Once you have completed the game, if you are still hell-bent on finding everything (like myself), then go to it. And have a laptop ready, because I guarantee you will not find it all on your own. You may take this as a challenge, but this is fact. I’m not telling you back down, but preparing you for reality.
Should you play the game? Yes. Even if only for a little bit, just long enough to feel comfortable with the the change in dimensional perception. If video games really aren’t your thing, there is a film called Indie Game: The Movie that is worth your time. The film chronicles the development of Fez and Super Meat Boy, both of which are games by independent developers, and shows plenty of Fez gameplay as well as the struggles Polytron Studios went through to bring the game to market. I saw the film during its theatrical tour, which was when I first saw Fez in action, and I was not disappointed when my time came to explore it.
Back in 1995, my parents bought a Macintosh Performa 6116 as a family computer. It was the first real permanent desktop computer for our home, not a borrowed unit from one of the schools where either of my parents taught. Now that we had a computer that I could take a little more ownership of, and which connected to the still-unfamiliar internet, I began to discover just how much the World Wide Web had to offer. This was back when Hotmail was the cat’s meow, Netscape was the premier web browser, and “pirating” was still limited to knocking over a boat and stealing its cargo. Because digital media law wasn’t really a thing yet, shit was just out there for the taking, so long as your modem and hard drive could handle the file-size. I utilized this new-found magic to get video games (… and porn, but everyone used the ‘net for porn back then. Actually, everyone uses the internet for porn now. In fact, I’m surprised you’re reading this instead of looking up porn). One such game was called Trials.
That first iteration of Trials was a motorcycle and a line across the screen. The motorcycle’s throttle and gears were controlled with the mouse, and the line had various bumps and ledges which acted as obstacles. It was pretty fun at the time, but thinking back on how the mouse button changed gears and the cursor’s movement dictated throttle, and there was no control over which way the rider leaned (or maybe there was, and I just never knew about it), playing that game today would totally suck.
Fast forward to 2009 (when I had long forgotten about that crappy little motorbike game on my parents’ Macintosh that went obsolete before the iAnything was launched), RedLynx released Trials HD. I downloaded the demo on a friend’s recommendation, and something about it was familiar, but it wasn’t until the third or fourth track when I had that moment of clarity and realized I had played this game 14 years earlier. Upon further research, I found out there had been various flash games with the Trials formula, and even a full release for Windows in 2008. I wasn’t disappointed that I missed out on those earlier games, but it was nice to know that there was some history behind this incredibly addicting game that would overtake my summer and annoy the shit out of my girlfriend.
The first time I nailed a clean back flip in the demo for Trials HD, I was hooked. Soon after, I bought the full game and continued looking for huge jumps and ridiculous stunts to pull off. I’m a big fan of giant ramps and inconceivable distances to jump over, like Evel Knievel jumping Snake River Canyon or Danny Way over the Great Wall of China (the movie Hot Rod has a special place in my heart), so this game catered to me directly. After earning all the gold medals I could and beating all my friends’ records, I started playing less and less of Trials HD, until it eventually became a fond memory of a game that no longer appeared in the “Recently Played” tab of my downloaded titles.
Everything I hoped for in a sequel to Trials HD came to fruition in Trials Evolution. To be fair, “everything I hoped for” wasn’t much; it mostly boiled down to more tracks and multiplayer, which further distills down to just multiplayer, since a sequel to any game without new levels is just the same game all over again (I’m looking at you, Madden NFL franchise). On top of real-time local and online multiplayer, RedLynx also added Track Central, a feature that can make the game seemingly endless for the competitive perfectionist. As in HD, Evolution has a track creation system, allowing players to design tracks from their own head. However, where HD only let you upload tracks to your friends list for them to play, Evolution allows for public sharing and retrieval. Track Central even breaks down the player creations by ‘Highest Rated This Week’, ‘Highest Rated All Time’, and ‘RedLynx Picks’ among others, so no one has to dig though piles of shit tracks with no quality or challenge for something worth playing. It’s clear that a lot of effort goes into tracks created by our fellow players, and some of them are better than those from the core game.
Something many might not notice is the tighter control on the bike itself. That is not to say the controls in HD were bad, but there were plenty of times I found myself pissed off at HD about how under-responsive the Scorpion bike was compared to the hyper-sensitive Phoenix. However, Evolution seems to have found a wee more middle ground between the two, and repeated crashing now frustrates me more with myself than with the game.
Evolution also has bigger jumps, like really big fucking jumps, with enough hang time to make me apprehensive about how I plan to land them. I know it shouldn’t matter how I feel about my little virtual motocross dude-bro, but when I fuck those up, I have to try them again, and that makes for a slower time. This often results in re-starting from the beginning of the track so I can try for a faster overall time, and even if I nail that big fucking jump’s landing on this attempt, I might not hit the next one so cleanly, which means I’ll start the track over again… and you can see where this game gets mildly addicting.
Should you play this game? Maybe. I know it’s not for everyone, but those who get into it tend to just fucking love it. If you have an Xbox 360 that is connected to the interwebs, then I highly suggest you download the demo for Trials HD. If you don’t like it, let it go. But if you find yourself playing the same track over and over again for a faster time, then get the whole game and do your best to clear it (try to best my times while you’re at it). When you’re ready for more tracks and online competition, Trials Evolution will be waiting.
Historically, video games that are licensed for TV/movie/comic book properties tend to suck. They are usually crappy game mechanics and shoddy controls hiding behind a popular cartoon character, so kids are into them. Sometimes a developer is rushed to meet a deadline so their game can release alongside the movie it was licensed for, but the lack of polish on the “finished” product is outshined by the movie’s hype. It’s safe to assume that if an upcoming game is tied to a movie, it’s not worth waiting in line for on release day. Curious? Go fire up a copy of the last Harry Potter game and let me know how it is. After five games worth of practice and feedback, you’d think EA could produce something good enough to have me wielding a second wand while I play.
Batman games were no exception to this. The disappointment was only exacerbated by the fact that Batman fans put a lot of upfront faith into any new project featuring the Dark Knight. It took about ten years, but those at the intersection of Fanboy Rd & Gamer Ln figured out not to trust an upcoming Batman title, to do their research first, and often confirm their suspicion that the game was junk.
Note: In all fairness, I very much enjoyed the 1989 release of Batman for the NES. It was a side-scrolling platformer that was challenging but not frustrating, and it had some of the better music in the NES catalogue. It was also the first time I had seen wall-bouncing in a game, something I think should be in every game where the player can jump against a wall. Continue reading Only Snake Plissken and Shaft Could Make Arkham City Better
On December 22, 2011, I came home from my company’s holiday celebration dinner ready for a winter break devoid of traveling. I was excited to fill a week-and-change with movies and video games, both of which are presented to me through a Microsoft Xbox 360; the movies stream through my Netflix service, and video games are what the unit was designed for. I turned on the TV, fired up the stereo receiver, and pressed the ever-comforting power button on the Xbox console. Nothing happened.
I was not afforded the warning shot known as the Red Ring of Death (my Xbox is that old), and what remained was a useless brick of white plastic and electrical components holding my copy of Arkham City prisoner. I took it into my local used-games merchant to see if they could help. Since I’m cool with the guys who work there (and by “cool” I mean they don’t talk down to me), they gave me the max trade-in value for the console.
Pre-orders for the Star Wars edition Xbox (to be released in February) had just gone on sale. I was obviously in the market for a new Xbox, and I’m… pretty into Star Wars. It was as if the gods were speaking to me in clear-as-fuck English: “Pre-order this thing, and use your Wii for a few months.” What the gods didn’t tell me was that this Star Wars Xbox would be delayed until April.
It was time to go back to the Wii section of the store, where I hadn’t wandered in almost a year, and see what I could find. The sad fact is that Nintendo hasn’t released shit worth playing in far too long. There’s even documented evidence that the Wii’s street value is less than the labor cost of stealing it. But Nintendo had one more beacon of hope for the end of 2011. Continue reading The Skyward Sword Is Long
Here are the video games I played in 2010 with mini-reviews.
New Super Mario Bros
Possibly the best four player cooperative game I have ever played. But players have to watch out for each other, or else they will end up bouncing off their team members’ heads and knocking them into pits. The difficulty curve works well, starting easy, but by the end the game is extremely difficult. 5/5
Definitely the best free/downloadable PC game I have ever played. It’s a run and jump cave exploration platformer with 16 levels, pixely graphics and catchy chip-music. The cave layout is randomly generated every time and there is a lot to discover. When you first start playing this game you’re going to die a lot, but the pleasure comes from knowing how to avoid that trap/monster/layout next time. There are a lot of powerups, weapons and useful items you can dig up, purchase or steal from cave-dwelling shop keeps. Originally made by just one guy, an X-Box Indie Arcade version of Spelunky is in the works. 5/5 Continue reading 2010 in Video Games