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Archive for December, 2009

Wallet Abuse Wednesday 12-30-09

Posted by nfinit on December 30, 2009

Here’s what I don’t understand about the games industry.

Let’s say you’re a game company, maybe your game is I dunno, Mega. And let’s say you have a game that’s finished, pressed, and shipped to stores, just waiting on store shelves. For the sake of argument let’s give our fictitious company’s fictitious game a fictitious name, maybe Layonetta. Now, there’s nothing keeping you from selling this game– indeed, since stacks of this game are just sitting around taking up valuable storage space, they’re kinda a pain in the ass for Gamestop and Best Buy to keep on hand if it’s not actually being sold and making money.

Now let’s say it’s the week after Christmas and you know that maybe Layonetta won’t be a blockbuster, maybe it’s a niche title that needs all the help it can get, that that’s the very reason you’ve been sitting on this game for the past month, living in mortal fear of your game being drowned by the huge Modern Warfare 2/Japanese 3d Gothic Dominatrix crossover market. You know people will be coming back to stores the week after Christmas with gift cards and returning detritus like Guitar Hero 5 for stuff they actually want to play– Your game is full of sex and blood and violence and all sorts of things we love, why not market your game with the line “Get what your really want” and sell to all of these people who already own the big holiday releases?

So in other news, I couldn’t find a single store in NYC willing to sell me Bayonetta. Bastards.

Divine Divinity II: Ego Draconis (360)

One of the disappointing developments of Dragon Age: Origins was that despite the name containing the word “dragon”, the cover art featuring a “dragon” and the game and the universe it inhabits supposedly revolving around dragons, there were all of three dragons in the entire game, two of which were entirely optional fights, one of those two accessible only through a dialog tree.

Not Divine Divinity II: Ego Draconis! Not only is the landscape lousy with dragons, you actually become a dragon halfway through the game! Clearly based purely on the number and variety of dragons to interact with, Divine Divinity II is Dark Fantasy RPG Dragon Game of the Year 2009.

As far as the game itself? It’s an old-school open world action RPG in the mold of Oblivion and Fallout 3, to the point that it’s actually using the same engine Bethesda used to make both of those games. So on those grounds it should be pretty excellent, on the other hand it’s coming from a smallish European developer who’s only ever produced for the PC and who hasn’t released a full-sized, honest-to-god videogame since the lastDivine Divinity back in 2004. So you sorta have to be aware of what you’re getting into before you make the plunge into a huge, meaty fantasy WRPG. If I weren’t still playing Dragon Age, I’d probably be all over this– as it stands, Mass Effect 2 is releasing in a couple weeks, which means by the time I’m finished playing Bioware games and in the mood for another WRPG, Ego Draconis will probably be down to twenty bucks at Gamestop.

That said, if Bioware ain’t your thing yet somehow still love RPGs with that western developed open-world flavor, look into this. Seeing as how the PC version will probably be a buggy mess, this may be one of the very rare cases where a WRPG is best experienced on the consoles.

The Magic Obelisk (Wii)

If you can get past the rather um… troubling… title card, The Magic Obelisk presents what may be a rather insanely great puzzle platformer based around the concept that your guy can only move in shadow and that the player must then manipulate light sources in order to create and stretch shadows to complete each stage. It’s the sort of compact, original concept that we’d never see on an actual disc anymore.

It’s also five bucks and the first original game Game Arts has developed this decade, so maybe you Wii owners ought to buy that. On that note, does anyone know if Nintendo is going out of their way to advertise this at all? This really seems like one of the concepts that could easily be a high profile title for the WiiWare program, and would probably see no small amount of PR money spent by Microsoft if it were to be released on Xbox Live Arcade. It worked well for Braid at any rate, and The Magic Obelisk seems just as worthy.

Learn Chess (DS)

It seems like there should already be a definitive Chess program for the DS, and there’s no way it should be this.

Learn Geography (DS)

Okay 1: Endutainment software never. fucking. works. Either buy your kid a book or buy your kid a game, don’t annoy your kid by spending money on something you both know will maybe see the insides of a DS once before being swapped out for a Pokemon game as soon as your back is turned.

So the only other real reason to own this is 2: You’ve got a nerdy kid who’s yet to have the joy of learning beaten out of their skulls by the education system. Well still don’t buy something like this, as that kid is going to know full well you could have spent that same amount of money on something interesting, like I dunno. An ant farm. Or a radio kit. or a DEAD SCORPION ENCASED IN LUCITE!

Remember: If you have a kid that you think is smart enough to warrant endutainment software, that kid is also smart enough to know when she’s being patronized. Buy the scorpion instead!

Dreamer: Zoo Keeper (DS)

I can’t even. Look kids, if your life’s ambition is to become a heavily sedated zoo keeper then please, buy this. Or a gun. You know, whichever.
I just want to take this minute to point out that, since I started write ups for shovelware, I’ve noticed that Dreamcatcher Interactive is quite possibly the worst thing in the world that doesn’t involve the words “genital”, “mutilation” and “Africa”. Learn Chess, Learn Geography and Dreamer: Zoo Keeper are all Dreamcatcher Interactive… games, if you wish to use that word, and there’s at least an even chance that if you see a DS or Wii shovelware title on Wallet Abuse, it’s a Dreamcatcher Game.
And that chunk of awful rounds out the week. I was hoping there would at least be something from Xbox Live Arcade, it’s the last week for the titles scheduled as releasing this year to come out, so it doesn’t look like we’re ever going to see Samurai Shodown or Earthworm Jim HD come out. Which is sad

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Okay so one more Bioware post

Posted by nfinit on December 27, 2009

So Destructoid’s Anthony Burch somehow managed to trick Bioware head honchos Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk into answering real, substantial questions regarding the games industry, particularly their views on the downfall in popularity of Japanese role-playing games in the wake of the current console generation.  Their answers, while more or less correct, were kinda weird coming out of Bioware.  I’ll explain.  First quote:
“The fall of the JRPG in large part is due to a lack of evolution, a lack of progression,” Zeschuk said. “They kept delivering the same thing over and over. They make the dressing better, they look prettier, but it’s still the same experience.
Greg Zeschuk is entirely correct here.  The fundamental Japanese RPG experience hasn’t evolved terrible much since the height of the 16 bit days.  It’s very much mired in traditional expectations, and as a result it’s grown stagnant despite the best efforts of standout titles like Persona 4 and The World Ends With You.
That said, it’s an odd opinion coming out of Bioware, who’ve basically been remaking Knights of the Old Republic for the better part of a decade.  I’m not saying the KOTOR formula doesn’t make for good games, obviously it does or Bioware wouldn’t have stuck with it all this time, but the whole open-world-but-it’s-not-really-points-on-a-map formula really needs an overhaul with Jade Empire 2 or whatever it is they wind up working on after Mass Effect 2.  And as far as JRPGs focusing on window dressing, it’s hard for Bioware to say this with a straight face when you’re spending the GNP of Uruguay on voice talent for Mass Effect 2.
And not for nothing?  Dragon Age and Mass Effect 1 were kinda hideous.  It’s 2010, you might wanna start looking at hiring some texture artists.  Unless it turns out Micheal Dorn is pretty good at drawing realistic faces for 3d models, maybe you ought not to be spending that money on Worf.
Okay, second quote:
“My favorite thing, it’s funny when you still see it, but the joke of some of the dialogue systems where it asks, ‘do you wanna do this or this,’ and you say no. ‘Do you wanna do this or this?’ No. ‘Do you wanna do this or this?’ No. Lemme think — you want me to say ‘yes.’ And that, unfortunately, really characterized the JRPG.”

It’s always been my major complaint about JRPGs that they’re not really role-playing games– they’re menu-driven novellas wrapped around strategy games of varying degrees of quality. This is why many of my favorite JRPGs– Shining Force, Vandal Hearts, Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea– do away with the entire “RPG” bit and present instead a robust, low-frills turn-based strategy game.

But again, Bioware isn’t entirely without blame here. Bioware likes to tout that the decisions the player makes in one of their games have real, substantial effects on the game itself, but the honest truth is you don’t really have nearly as much control over the plot as Bioware would like us to believe. Exhaustive side missions aside, Bioware RPGs are actually remarkably linear– there’s an opening sequence exposing you to the universe, you’re given a handful of locations to visit at your leisure, then once you get bored with doing that you meet up with everyone for the final fight with the Big Bad. Maybe an optional location or two will open up, maybe you get to chase away party members, maybe you get some optional side quests, but for the most part the stuff that has to happen happens in the same order and you really have no effect on their outcomes save for variations in dialog trees and video clips.  It’s a big difference from something like a Bethesda RPG where the player is given pretty much total control where they want to go and when they want to end the game.

The point of all this is that after spending the past year addicted to Mass Effect and Dragon Age (and no doubt Mass Effect 2 in a couple weeks), I’ve come to notice that Bioware has become more than a bit predictable. Not that Bioware doesn’t make outstanding games, but I’m pretty sure ME2 isn’t going to do much to break the KOTOR paradigm established back in 2003.

That said, Square Enix have taken Bioware’s criticisms to heart. For the Xbox 360 version of their new JRPG title Nier, Squeenix will utilize an exciting new technology they call “Bioware Filtering”:

Posted in Sperging about games | 1 Comment »

Game of the Year follies Gamespot edition

Posted by nfinit on December 26, 2009

The end of the year is upon us and with that comes the intoxicating mix of easy content and page view-generation that are the Game of the Year awards. Every site/magazine/newspaper-with-a-gaming-column gets in on the action, which is why you wind up with GOTY packaging on seventeen different boxes come January. Gaming is weird like that– aside from the hilariously inept Spike Videogame Awards, we don’t really have a consensus year’s best panel/award thing in the same way as there’s the Oscars or the Grammys or the Nebula Awards– pretty much any jack-leg outfit with access to an HTML editor and webspace is allowed go get away with this foolis—

— as I was saying. Admittedly most major publications at least will make some attempt at making their awards meaningful in a grander games-are-important sort of way– then you have some publications that are rather obviously just selling those same awards to the highest bidder. Some will even attempt to give these awards to the games which are actually the best in their respective category for that particular year, but this practice is frowned upon.

Then you have Gamespot.  Their GOTY for 2009 was Demon’s Souls.

Demon’s Souls. You remember Demon’s Souls, Japanese dungeon crawler, about as approachable as James Joyce’s Ulysses, no actual pause function? Yeah, that.

Demon’s Souls: GOTY 2009, Gamespot.

Admittedly, I’ve not played Demon’s Souls. Maybe it really is Game of the Year. Maybe it really is a better role playing game than Dragon Age, maybe it really is overall a better fundamental game than Arkham Asylum, maybe we really will remember it as more of a cultural touch-point of the console gaming community than Modern Warfare 2. But the selection begs credulity. After all, Gamespot’s own review described the game as “unforgiving”, “stubbornly difficult”, “unusual and unforgiving” and “You are meant to die, and you are meant to die often. ”

Judging from Gamespot’s own review, Demon’s Souls isn’t exactly a game that was meant to be enjoyed as much as it is endured.

I dunno. But if I look at a game and the general consensus for that game is that that it’s a dense, frustrating, inaccessible experience, I’m not sure if that makes for a very good videogame, despite how many times you throw around the terms “innovative” and “visionary” in your review.

And sure, you can’t criticize an opinion for being wrong. I mean, I’ve sat here and tried to explain to you people why Magician Lord is one of the best games of all time based on its sprite art. But when you’re in a position of authority such as Gamespot (or, alternately, if you squint until something resembling a “position of authority” comes into focus), where you’re actually being paid for your opinion, that opinion should carries with it some weight of credibility. It’s sort of like if ESPN were to announce that the Cincinnati Bengals were the best team in the AFC. I mean, maybe they are, if you play around with the definition of the term “best team in the AFC” actually meant “best offensive line in the state of Ohio”, but the Indianapolis Colts are sitting at 14-0 right now.

The Indianapolis Colts of the videogame world as of 2009? As much as I hate to admit it, it’s probably Modern Warfare 2. MW2 is as very dudebro as a dudebro game can be, but it also sold six million units and the PS3 version is sitting at a 94% at Metacritic, vs an 89% for Demon’s Souls. If we’re looking at something that ranks high purely on the basis of being a very good game and not cultural relevancy, then there’s been a whole lot of stuff that’s come out this year that have worked well as exceptional gaming experiences. Again, the overriding theme of Demon’s Souls reviews was how inaccessible the game ultimately proved to be– should that really be the defining characteristic of your Game of the Year?

Let’s dig a little further. Was Demon’s Souls Gamespot’s highest-rated PS3 game of the year? No, that honor is shared by Braid and Uncharted 2, each with a 9.5. Perhaps Demon’s Souls is Gamespot’s highest rated RPG? Well, no. That’s reserved for the PC release of Dragon Age: Origins, again with a 9.5. The highest rated game of the year as awarded by Gamespot? Well, no 10s were handed out all year, but the aforementioned Braid, Dragon Age Origins PC all received the next highest score, as did, Ballad of Gay Tony, Forza Motorsport 3, Chinatown Wars, Uncharted 2, Rolando 2, Rea Racing and F.A.S.T.

Wait, F.A.S.T?

Seriously? This is more a credible GOTY by Gamespot’s own standards? Moving on.

So what happened here? Did Demon’s Souls receive GOTY honors for being the best “hardcore” game? For being the best Japanese game? Is this some sort of twisted attempt by Gamespot to maintain some semblance of hardcore gamer street cred? In that case, didn’t all of my fellow espresso-sipping, beret-wielding console gamer intelligentsia agree we all had a heck of a lot of fun playing through Batman: Arkham Asylum? If the award just had to go to a Japanese game to maintain their hardcore gamer cred, isn’t Retro Gaming Challenge a far more interesting choice?

Of course, the easy answer is to say that Gamespot is doing this for the page hits, and it’s probably true, and is also why I’m not linking to them for the purposes of this update. However I get the feeling the real answer is not nearly as sinister. They’re probably just being the gaming equivalent of pretentious hipster twats.

Posted in Our Industry Is Awful, Sperging about games | 1 Comment »

Wallet Abuse Wednesday 12-23-09

Posted by nfinit on December 22, 2009

it’s the last week before Christmas and gaming pickings are dire indeed– so dire in fact that the Big Red Coat staff has received word from North Pole Heavy Industries, Ltd that due to skyrocketing coal prices thanks to the industrialization of China and India, Santa will instead be resorting to using the games released this week to pass judgement on naughty children instead of the traditional lump of coal system that has served him well for hundreds of year.  Luckily we have come up with a handy conversion chart of how many lumps of coal each wretched excuse for digital entertainment translates into, so your will know exactly how disappointed Santa is regarding your actions of the past year:

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: The Crystal Bearers (Wii)

Remember the first Crystal Chronicles, a multiplayer super-deformed Final-Fantasy themed dungeon romp that was wildly popular and well-regarded despite needing nearly five hundred dollars of extracurricular attachments to get the full use of not counting the game itself?  Yeah, this is nothing like that, instead being a thoroughly single-player action title with an average in the low sixties at Metacritic.

Lump of Coal Index:  Three lumps of coal.  Not necessarily punishment for naughty kids as much as it is a dire warning for boring, ultimately disappointing children
Guitar Hero Van Halen (PS360, PS2, Wii)

Think quick, what’s more relevant in 2010, Van Halen or yet another Guitar Hero band-based expansion pack?  I don’t have much else to say about GH:VH as sometime this week I hope to have a guest article up on the release and to be quite I’m the world’s worst person to be judging guitar games.  I’ll just leave this entry with the observation that despite Activision’s refusal to include any post-David Lee Roth Van Halen songs, (presumably on grounds that anything without DLR would not be considered  a”true” Van Halen song), 19 of the 44 tracks aren’t Van Halen songs at all, but standards from bands like Foo Fighters and Queens of the Stone Age– people who have jack all to do with Van Halen aside from employing long-haired dudes with guitars.
Lump of Coal Index:  A Cabo Wabo shot glass packed with coal.  Remember, not only is Santa giving you a terrible game, he’s giving you a terrible game Activision gave away with Guitar Hero 5  hoping to sink Rock Band Beatles sales.  This just isn’t for naughty children, it’s for children for whom Santa holds in utter disdain.
(before we go on I’d like to break character for a bit and point out that the Sammy Haggar section at the Van Halen online store is The.  Saddest.  Thing.  I mean, just look:
I mean, you can just picture Sammy sitting on a crate of boxes explaining to the website design guy saying “okay look, just make sure they know that these picture discs are very rare, okay?  They’re in limited supply. It’s very important that I sell these goddamned discs I don’t even know who ordered the stupid things”
And that’s not even going into the bit where apparently Sammy has spent a sizable chunk of his fortune buying up all copies of any magazines to ever feature him on their cover just so he can resell them as collector’s items.
World Party Games (Wii)
This title confuses me.  Is it World Party Games, as in party games that the game itself takes you over the world to experience, or World Party Games, which would imply party games from the world over that have presumably been collected and brought to one location to be experienced?

At some point over the past year the “shitty Wii mini-game collection” managed to become a full-fledged genre. Provided we’re willing to remove Nintendo’s own efforts from this market it could prove interesting to see which, if any, games in this genre are capable of providing a legitimately interesting gaming experience– you know, something along the lines of watching and rating reality TV shows, only instead of Jersey Shore you to sit down and expose yourself to insipid Mario Party ripoffs.    That said, I somehow
doubt this is one of those games.  Mainly because of this
If I’m reading this right, apparently one of the mini-games features the player slapping caricatures of little Asian dudes that could not be more offensive if they were wearing coolly hats and talking about “flied lice”.  Which… okay might actually be kinda cool, but man those graphics are horrible.
Lump of Coal Index:  Two lumps and a handbook on understanding Buddhism.  Santa is unsure if you’ve been bad or not but would rather not take the risk.
Cold Stone Creamery:  Scoop It Up (Wii)
So apparently this is happening now.
Anyway, I’m developing a new theory as to why EA and Activision and pretty much any other third-party not named “Sega” refuses to take development for the Wii seriously, and it’s this:  crap like Cold Stone Creamery has rendered the entire Wii library radioactive and the big players would rather not have AAA-level titles associated with the product.  That makes at least as much sense as any theory offered by the Nintendo fanboys and allows me to blame Nintendo for being too successful.
Lump of Coal Index:  A pickaxe and a one-way Greyhound ticket to Sago, West Virginia.  If your child finds Cold Stone Creamery in their Christmas stocking you really ought to look into professional counselling services as Santa believes the little brat is well on his way to being the next Eric Robert Rudolph.
Savage Moon:  The Hera Campaign (Downloadable; PSN for PSP)

Among the more confounding movements in gaming over the past couple years as been the transition from tower defense games as something you play in your browser for free to full-fledged gaming products that people are actually compelled to spend money on.  Of course sense this is on the PSP no one’s actually going to be compelled to spend money upon it, but it’s neat to see a publisher as high-profile as Sony itself try to market a tower defense game.  It could even be that the entire single-player RTS genre has either already shifted to or is in the process of becoming a giant game of tower defense.
Lumps of Coal Index:  Neutral. Sure, a tower defense game on the PSP may be a dubious proposition, but seeing as how it’s a PSP game it’s effectively free.
Polar Panic (Downloadable; Xbox Live Arcade, PSN for PSP)

Developer Eiconic Games went into development of Polar Panic with the expressed purpose of creating an updated version of Pengo and… well, they’ve certainly managed to do that–
I just worry that maybe Eiconic Games have greatly overestimated the popularity and relevance of Sega’s early arcade library.  I mean, they made a spiritual successor to Pengo.  That’s great.  Maybe next they can work on a Tac Scan sequel next.

Lump of Coal Index: Half a lump of coal, milk and cookies untouched, presents left sitting on your roof.  It’s not so much that Santa hates you, you’re just sort of puzzled as to why Santa came over in the first place.
Dragon’s Lair (Downloadable; DSiWare for DSi)

So I know data compression tech has advanced a great deal since 1983, but I mean c’mon.  This thing was a laser disc game!  The entire point Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace was to watch a 30 minute long interactive Don Bluth cartoon– well that and this
Dragon’s Lair, much like Polar Panic, is targeting a very specific retro market that wasn’t spectacularly successful to begin with.  I mean, sure squeezing a laserdisc game into the 2kb of data or whatever Nintendo allows for DSi Ware games is an impressive technical feat, but can’t you just download some Dragon Pink hentai to an SD card and watch that instead?
Lump of Coal index:  3 lumps of coal and discovering that Santa has shuffled through your DVD collection and put your collection of Cool Devices back in the wrong order
0 Day:  Attack on Earth (Downloadable, XBLA for Xbox 360)
So let’s say I were to tell you that Squeenix were making a Geometry Wars-style twin stick shooter.  How would you think Squeenix would go about lending the game an air of undeniable Squeenix-osity?
Player’s ship is covered in belts?
Player’s ship is of indeterminate gender and/or sexual orientation?
PS1-era pre-rendered backgrounds?  DING DING DING DING
Lump of Coal Index:  Ten pounds of coal stuffed inside your stocking and then used to repeatedly smash a copy of Einhander.
Pallurikio (Downloadable, Wiiware for Wii)

Alright, look.  I give up.  I tried, I honestly tried to find something interesting to say about Pallurikio that doesn’t revolve around its silly name but it’s just a downloadable platform game.  You direct where you go by aiming the Wiimote cursor and jumping in that general direction.  I guess that sounds neat, but it only got 50% at Nintendo Live, and I mean, Nintendo is their life.  This game is godawful!  Seriously, please save your WiiWare points for Super Meat Boy.
Lump of Coal Index:  4 lumps of coal and a note from Santa mocking you for not buying World of Goo.
“Nfinit” you say “What if I’ve not been a bad boy and/or girl? Don’t I deserve something better than passive aggressive symbols of disapproval from some mythical amalgamation of Winter Solstice mythologies?”
Well boys and/or girls, you’re right.  You do deserve something better.  That’s why, if you’ve been a very very good boy and/or girl, ol’ Kris Kringle will work his holiday-of-undetermined-origin magic and present you with a Gamestop with a loose concept of release dates:
That’s right, motherfuckers!  GOTY 2010 Bayonetta’s street date has been wrecked worse than the career of Brittney Murphy’s pharmacist!  So go out and buy it!
For you poor benighted fools who are still reading and have yet to experience the glory of Bayonetta’s leggy mistress of spectral destruction and are at a loss as to why Bayonetta is Santa’s ultimate expression of love,   allow me to explain thusly:
Bayonetta is mainly Ninja Gaiden + Devil May Cry along with:
but mainly lots of this:
If you’re not grabbing your car keys to head out to Best Buy RIGHT THIS SECOND then just throw yourself into the nearest available means of mass transit as you HAVE NO SOUL.
If you already have the pleasure of being exposed to the Bayonetta experience, whether it be in demo (download it now!) form or in in it’s full-broken-release-date-glory can explain that Bayonetta may well represent the apex of the 3d brawler as we know it.  As precise as Ninja Gaiden, as stylish as Devil May Cry, more boobs-per-second than God Of War, Bayonetta is no less than the ultimate action game.

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Bad Controllers: The Duke

Posted by nfinit on December 20, 2009

The opening years of the 21st century saw America at the height of its economic and political power. We were loud, we were brutish and we didn’t particularly care what the rest of the world made of us. We had the best economy, we had the best bombs, and we had a government that had no compunction about using those bombs on possibly wholly fabricated political grounds. All in all, it was a great time to be an American.

That political hubris was mirrored in our consumer culture. We didn’t produce a lot, and maybe we didn’t necessarily produce the best quality anymore, but what we did produce was the biggest, loudest, and most excessive– and a lot of these things turned out to be terrible, terrible ideas.

For instance, the Hummer H2

You remember Hummers, right? Hideous beasts driven NBA stars and populist Libertarian governors? They where the very rolling symbol of America’s might and material excess until crude oil hit two hundred dollars a gallon and GM suddenly realized the entire Hummer brand revolved around a fleet of vehicles that averaged 9.5 miles per gallon. Hummer is currently in the process of being sold to Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Company Ltd, as the Chinese are the target market for hilariously inefficient Chevrolet Tahoe derivatives.

Hardee’s Monster Thickburger

With eight strips of bacon, three hundred grams of beef, approximately seven cubic meters of American cheese and enough calories to feed a Nike sweatshop for a week, the Monster Thickburger remains the ultimate symbol of American culinary might, and was single-handedly responsible for laying to waste the entire genus Bovinicus Angusarius
And the Microsoft Xbox.

The original Xbox was a brutal, clumsy mess of a videogame system; little more than a Celeron-based PC stuffed inside a slab of glossy black plastic. It was America’s first foray into the videogame hardware market since the Atari Jaguar and looked the part– big, loud, uncouth and generally ominous.

At first glance the XB1 doesn’t seem like a failure. After all, it got Microsoft’s foot in the door of hardware development and laid the groundwork for the Xbox 360. However in Microsoft’s haste to produce the Xbox they managed to perform a rather remarkable feat: they produced a console they didn’t own the rights to produce.

Microsoft was operating under the impression that the ready availability of inexpensive Intel CPUs and mid-range Nvidia graphics chips meant that there would be a steady supply of cheap chips and that economies of scale would mean that the system itself could quickly be sold at a profit while at the same time offering a price point comparable to Sony’s PlayStation 2. What Microsoft refused to take into consideration was that it cost Intel and Nvidia money to keep production lines open– Entire fabrication divisions had to be dedicated entirely to producing chips for the XB1. For a traditional console this isn’t a problem– If say, Nintendo found that IBM wasn’t willing to produce Gamecube chips anymore, they could just sell the rights to produce the chip to whatever chip fabricator was willing to submit the lowest bid. But all of the XB1’s chips were owned wholly by their parent companies, and Intel and Nvidia were not willing to produce chips at a discount for Microsoft.

By 2004 Microsoft was selling a rather respectable four hundred-dollar Linux/Myth TV box for two hundred dollars. As a result Microsoft was forced to hurry through a design for the successor, the Xbox 360, cutting the supported lifespan of the first Xbox to an unheard-of four years– And in the process creating a successor console that’s been riddled with production errors to this day.

All of this hubris, this bravado, this complete lack of oversight leads us to this monstrosity:

All discussion about the Duke begins and usually ends with the size of the blasted thing, so let’s get that out of the way first:

In Microsoft’s defense this was the age of Bonds and McGwire and Canseco so maybe Redmond was operating under the impression that Americans would start imbibing human growth hormone to offset the 4200 calories they were taking in by eating at Hardee’s three times a day. Or maybe Manute Bol was on the design team. Either way the design of the original Xbox controller was a farce, and all the more frustrating in that Microsoft had experience creating perfectly competent, if uninspiring PC game controllers:

But then again we are dealing with the same company that would later think that this:

was a good idea, so maybe we should have seen this coming.

But I’d be remiss if I were to cite the staggering size of the Duke as it’s only flaw– after all, I could just put up any number of webcomics from the period and save myself 1400 words and a Sunday afternoon. But this is about more than just the Duke’s pain-inducing girth– this controller’s got issues.

For instance, what’s up with that button layout? Yeah, they managed to shove six face buttons onto a dual-analog pad, but Microsoft was forced to do so in such a way that placed two of those buttons so far north of the rest of the rest that your thumb needed two Sherpa guides and a Snow Cat to find the stupid things. Meaning that for the only real use for six face buttons– 2d Capcom fighters– was ruined.

If anything, The Duke goes to prove why you don’t really need six face buttons on a modern game controller– even if you manage to produce an abomination of a game pad that could actually fit a half-dozen buttons under your right thumb, by this day and age you don’t really want to move your thumbs off the sticks more often than necessary anyway.

Oh yeah, about that:

Apparently at some point in the Duke’s design Microsoft decided that placing your hands roughly twelve feet apart from one another wasn’t enough for the player to easily discern which hand was controlling which thumb– Maybe they had a point there, the nerve damage that came about as a result from using The Duke probably confused the central nervous system of many play testers. So in order to differentiate between the left and right hands Microsoft decided to lift the right thumb stick from designs first described in the lost texts of the Marquis De Sade.

Also there’s this:

At some point Microsoft’s designers realized that creating a game pad the size of a baby’s head would leave an enormous swath of unsightly black plastic sitting between the thumb sticks.  Microsoft’s solution for this quandary was to slap a garish Xbox logo in that space– a huge round emblem that for the world looks like it should do something when pressed, yet is just a big dumb puffy sticker.

But Microsoft needed used the big gulf in the center of the Duke to house twin memory card bays, one of which was used to house a headphone adapter– you may remember that Sega used this vast cavern in the middle of the Dreamcast controller to at least house a PDA– The Big Green X wasn’t even useful in controlling the headphones. It was just there, like some sort of big green supernumerary nipple, begging to be played with but ultimately not attached to anything fun.
Like many failed American ventures, Microsoft was forced to look to Japan to make something useful of the Xbox 1 controller and salvation was

found in the excellent Controller S. Although the S would place the black/white buttons in an even more inconvenient location, by the time the Controller S became the de facto controller for the Xbox worldwide, developers realized the best use for the black/white buttons was as a sort of second and third Select button, used for activating map screens and the like. The Controller S is in fact one of the all-time great controllers– with twin thumb sticks, a decent face button arrangement and twin analog triggers the game pad design had finally settled into a useable standard and would later go on to form the basis for the excellent 360 controller.

But the story of The Duke does have a happy ending– unlike most controllers hellbent on terrible game pad design, Microsoft realized the staggering mistakes made with The Duke and went on to base the Xbox 360’s controller on the successful and beloved Controller-S design– they even remembered to do something useful with the big dumb button in the middle.

Posted in Bad Controllers | 2 Comments »

Wallet Abuse Wednesday 12-16-09

Posted by nfinit on December 15, 2009

Four games this week; they’re all terrible, and I’m pretty sure that if I go back to right now that at least two of these will have been pushed back a week.  It’s a good thing no one ever plays videogames in the month between Black Friday and January the 1st, otherwise someone might accidentally release a game and I dunno, make money or something.

Reader Rabbit Kindergarten (DS)

Okay so I’m not a dad, kids scare me and I’ve rendered myself more or less terminally single by this point, so maybe I’m not the go-to guy for info on something like Reader Rabbit Kindergarten, but I do know that thirty bucks will instead buy your kid this pimp motherfucker right here:

Not only will it be more cherished by your child, you’re giving your kid a better chance at being a decent human being.

Look, maybe I’m being a curmudgeon here and not seeing the benefits of new tech to educate children, but c’mon.  Don’t buy your kid a DS game to teach them to read.  Don’t be That Guy, America.

Playmobil Circus (Wii)

Playmobil has ever been something of a dark, authoritarian version of Lego– very German, kinda creepy, probably fucks up kids who are exposed to it.  So when Playmobil got their own gaming franchise, I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when it featured pantsless BDSM with knives.

Also, this:

what the fuck is going on with this game?

So while we’re on the subject of European polystyrene toys, I wanted to bring up Lego Rock Band, or rather the remarkable scope in which the game has managed to utterly fail, possibly taking Lego games, Rock Band games, guitar games and the economy of Scandinavia with it.

Lego Rock Band sold 13,000 copies.  This is despite being given away at Old Navy in return for spending twenty dollars on trendy, embarrassingly cheap clothing.  Thirteen thousand copies!  I’m pretty sure I could scrawl “Moon Patrol II” onto old copies of Madden 2004 and trick more than 13,000 people into buying it.

But more than the trouble this speaks for Lego games– I mean c’mon,its Lego, they’ll just release a Harry Potter game and make twelve bazillion dollars next year– what does this mean for guitar games?  Not a single version of Rock Band Beatles, Guitar Hero 5, Band Hero or DJ Hero showed up on November’s National Public Diary and it’s rumored that if RB: Beatles fails to hit a certain unspecified sales point then EA owes Apple Music 33 million dollars.

What does the future hold for guitar games?  Underground Development is crapping out Guitar Hero Van Halen next week, despite Barry Kotik pretty much admitting that Activision killed the genre by flooding the market with too many releases, and (I shit you not) Rock Band: Green Day has been revealed as the followup to Rock Band: Beatles.  No Rock Band 3. Green Day!  They’re going from the Beatles to freaking Green Day!

Meanwhile Best Buy, Gamestop, Target and Wal-Mart sales directors are no doubt looking at the massive amount of real estate dedicated to these oversized game packages and thinking they’ve become an albatross about the neck of gaming retail.  There’s no way you can justify one copy of Rock Band: Beatles taking up the same shelf space as three dozen copies of Modern Warfare 2 when Modern Warfare 2 sold six million copies in one month.

Playmobil Pirates (DS)

Unlike the Wii game, which is basically a party game, the DS Playmobil title appears to be more of a traditional videogame, although the PR stuff is careful to mention that it takes place during 70-odd “missions”, so it’s hard to tell.  All the gameplay videos are in German and bring up stuff like



And not for nothing but I’m pretty sure you don’t want you kids exposed to any of that.

Konami Classics Volume 1 (360)

So when I was checking Gamestop for this week’s WAW– all four games of it– I assumed we were all being exposed to another week of post-Black Friday shovelware releases.  I mean, two Playmobil titles and a freaking Reading Rabbit game?  Really?  That’s what the videogames industry is relying on to feed its families this week?  It was almost (almost) enough to cause to rethink my premise for this article and perhaps wait for the downloadable titles to be revealed for Live Arcade and Playstation Network and Virtual Console.

But then I saw this.  Konami Classics!  Imagine!  The pre-Symphony of the Night Castlevanias!

Sunset Riders!

Sexy Parodius!

Konami is finally releasing a comp disc!  The possibilities are staggering!  Wait, let’s go back to Sexy Parodius again–

Right.  Okay, so maybe a lot of their classic arcade stuff– Aliens, Simpsons, TNMT, relies on licenses that they probably dont’ have the rights to anymore, but still!  These guys made Contra!  There has to be at least three or four Contra games on this, right?  I mean, Konami Arcade Classics released on the DS back in 2006 and included thirty games!  This at least has to compare with that, and probably include some more contemporary stuff.  So let’s break this list down and see how many classic Konami games twenty American dollars buys you in 2009:

Castlevania:  Symphony of the night:

Undeniably a classic, and something I’m dying to do a Greatest Games Ever piece on once i have the time to dedicate to it.  A little bit of a letdown though, as SOTN is already on Live Arcade and I’ve played it seventeen times through over the past 12 years.  Still, may as well include it, DVDs are huge and it’s not like Konami’s 16 bit stuff takes up a lot of room.  Moving on….

Super Contra:

Okay so that’s a wierd one to include as it’s easily the weakest of the 2d Contras– also anyone who wants to play Super Contra already has it on XBLA.  Still, it’s inclusion bodes well for the rest of the disc as if Konami is willing to include something as esoteric as Super Contra no doubt it’s chock-full of alien-blasting awesome.  Next!


Okay what’s this shit?  No one cared about Frogger back in 1981, why would anyone care about this now?  This is also already on XBLA and.. wait a goddamned second here.  What else is on this disc?

Wait, are you serious?


Dear lord.  They’re not kidding.  They’re actually doing this.  They’re releasing all the Konami games already present on XBLA and selling them on disc.  For $6.66 each.  To properly understand the magnitude of Konami’s cockup, a little perspective is in order.  Let’s take, oh I dunno, the first Capcom Classics Collection from back in 2006 for the original Xbox.  It too sold for twenty bucks–  Here’s what it included:

1. 1942
2. 1943: The Battle of Midway
3. 1943 Kai
4. Bionic Commando
5. Commando
6. Exed Exes
7. Final Fight
8. Forgotten Worlds
9. Ghosts ‘n Goblins
10. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
11. Gun.Smoke
12. Legendary Wings
13. Mercs
14. Pirate Ship Higemaru
15. Section Z
16. SonSon
17. Street Fighter II
18. Street Fighter II’: Champion Edition
19. Street Fighter II’ Turbo: Hyper Fighting
20. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts
21. Trojan
22. Vulgus

Ninety cents a game!  But that’s not the only example– comp discs chock-full of retro goodness have become commonplace over the past couple years.  SNK released a comp disc last year that included 16 arcade classics for twenty bucks– something all of you need to go out and buy right now, mind you.  For something as recent as this very console generation, look no further than Sega’s Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection for the 360, a stunning 49 Sega classics for a mere thirty bucks!

In fact, Konami’s “comp disc” only becomes a value when compared with the outright act of larceny Microsoft is charging for points to buy content off Xbox Live.  Yes, all three of these games are available on XBLA, but collecting all 2000 points needed to buy all three would cost twenty-five dollars– with 100 points left over.  However, since the only game on this disc that’s remotely desirable is Symphony of the Night is itself only 800 points, you’d be far better off buying those same points yourself and using the remaining 1300 points on Braid or Castle Crashers or Portal or Shadow Complex.




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Dragon Age Origins final thoughts

Posted by nfinit on December 14, 2009

So I’m pretty much done with Dragon Age: Origins– and by “done” I mean “I beat the game and instantly re-rolled as and evil elf bitch”  but I finished the game, so that counts for something and at least now I can write credibly about the endgame.

And yeah, it’s still probably my Game of the Year, but I’m probably not playing Assassin’s Creed II this year and don’t have access to a PS2, so take that for what you will– in the absence of DA:O the honors would probably fall to Arkham Asylum.  That said, as much as I enjoyed the game and was obsessed by it enough to spend 70 hours finishing it only to re-roll the moment credits were over,  Dragon Age is typical for Bioware’s recent stuff in that it sort of falls apart at the end.

Whether that’s because the middle of the game has so much content that I was burned out at the end is hard to say; but DA:O does have that unique Bioware quality in that at the very end the game simply runs out of content.  You can’t even grind for levels or gold because once you beat an enemy it doesn’t respawn. Enemies are a precious recourse that are depleted as the game progresses.  So you wind up with a world that’s gradually emptied of things to do as you travel through it.  Vast swaths of the countryside are rendered barren wasteland; dungeons lay empty as tombs, enemy fortresses sit abandoned and still.  And while that’s cool form a realism standpoint, it does mean that after a while you simply run out of stuff to do.  You cant’ go back and level, you can’t farm for gold.  This has the result of there only being enough money to buy at most one or two of the most powerful storebought items, and that there’s a hard level cap of about 20– there’s simply not enough exp to go around to give you any more than that.

The deserted ruins of Haven township-- Or as I like to call it "Levels 12-13"

As a result, as the game draws to a close things gradually become quite boring.  It’s not so much that you finally feel ready for the final battle, it’s that the final battle is the only thing left to do.  Which is all rather disappointing as Dragon Age Origins combat is quite possibly the best combat I’ve experienced in a western-developed RPG.  I actually scoured the countryside looking for more people to fight, something I almost never do in RPGs– years of putting up with random battles in Phantasy Star and Final Fantasy have caused me to instinctively dread RPG combat.  DA:O’s combat is so good I find myself regretting owning the 360 version for lack of player-made custom campaigns.

That said, DA:O combat brings with it some very typical Bioware shortcomings, namely the boss fights.  Bioware has this bad habit of creating boss fights that go one of two ways:  Eitehr the Big Bad utterly stomps your crew at the beginning of the fight and offer no chance to recover or the fights turns out to be a complete cakewalk who’s outcome is obvious within the opening rounds of the conflict.  Usually these two extremes happen during the same fight, success or failure  depending entirely upon the whims of the initial dice roll.  DA:O is no stranger to this, I cannot remember how many times I’ve reloaded a seemingly impossible fight a half dozen times over only to have everything suddenly “click” the next time through and the boss offer no challenge whatsoever.  Fans of the original Mass Effect will be quite familiar with this phenomenon, as it could randomly render the Matriarch Benenzia fight either soul-crushingly difficult or so simple you wondered why Saren would bother hooking up with her in the first place.


The climax of DA:O is particularly dickish in a way that even improves on Bioware’s high standards of brutality; an encounter with an enormous undead dragon that starts perfectly normally, albiet savagely difficult and seemingly impossible at the start until you finally get your bearings.   However this time that fateful dice roll takes place roughly halfway through the battle as the dragon flies to an inaccessible position and calls in it’s own army to annihilate your crew.  If the dice work in your favor then your own army is stout enough to hold back the horde as you man the siege engines to finish killing the dragon– if not, then your team and your own backup army is steamrolled in a matter of moments, rendering everything you’d done previously in that battle meaningless.

Oh, it also glitches out randomly.  So there’s that.  Finally I gave in and set the game to “casual” difficulty for the final encounter and defeated the dragon in an utterly unconvincing fashion as she sort of just stood there and received and endless supply of scorpion bolts to her immense scaly head.  Luckily there’s no achievements for completing the game on higher difficulty settings, so you’re free to wuss out on any battle you so please– that said, it’s an inelegant kludge of a solution to a problem that’s haunted Bioware’s games ever since the first wizard ambush way back in Baldur’s Gate 1.

Pissing and moaning aside, there’s a lot of things Dragon Age Origins does right that bodes well for Mass Effect 2.  As I said, combat is good as it’s ever been, albeit with the caveat that ME2’s combat is apparently much closer to a real-time 3rd person shooter than to Baldur’s Gate.  The dialog is outstanding as always, and most promisingly of all there is not a single goddamned Tower of Hanoi puzzle to be found.

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Wallet Abuse Wednesday 12-9-09

Posted by nfinit on December 8, 2009

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (DS)

So now Link has found himself a train. And also something something Zelda possessing armored guards something something. And the train is possibly haunted. Whatever. traaaaaaaaaiiiin!




Which is excellent news not only for Link, who no longer has to suffer the indignities of travel via beast of burden; but also for Hyrule as a whole, as it means the magical kingdom has now entered the Industrial Age and will get about to the important work of befouling the landscape in short order.

In the 20 years Nintendo has spent remaking the original Legend of Zelda, our hero Link has gone from walking around like some common peasant in the 8-16 bit generations to enjoying the benefits of animal husbandry in his N64 adventures to being ferried around by some creepy possessed boat in the Gamecube and the DS– ignoring the brief and confusing dalliance with wolf-based transportation in Twilight Princess there has been a clear progression in Link’s methods of transportation as the hardware cycle has ground on. To that end, I offer a bit of conjecture as to what the upcoming hardware generations will bring for Link:

Wii-HD: haunted Jalopy

DS 2: airship possessed by a friendly demon

DS 2 HD Remix: Magicite-fueled power armor

Nintendo Super Wii: A 1985 Harley Davidson Sportster powered by the restless souls of the damned

Microsoft Xbox 4: Quake II diagonal walk speed boost

Nintendo 128: Back to the horse again; albeit in a post-apocalyptic wasteland brought about by wars for Hyrule’s ever-decreasing stores of coal to power their haunted trains.

As far as the actual game; it’s supposedly rather good. At the time of this writing it has a Metacritic average of 89% and is generally receiving higher scores from the same publications than Phantom Hourglass. The real question here is why this is releasing fully two weeks after Black Friday– You’d think at least a few of the ten bazillion DS/DSi’s sold the other week would have gone toward people who remembered Nintendo still produces actual videogames on occasion.

The Saboteur (PS360)

So let me be the first to admit that maybe I entered into my relationship with The Saboteur with unrealistic expectations. What was shown in the Giant Bomb quicklook wasn’t a bad game exactly, but it also wasn’t the game I expected to see when Pandemic started dropping hints about their French Resistance-flavored action game back at E3 of this year. Pandemic’s developers kept stressing that the game’s protagonist Sean Devlin would be “just a guy”, an ordinary Joe (albeit in this case a hard-bitten Irish race mechanic Joe, so all the better) caught up in events beyond his control and trying to do what little he could to drive the Nazi menace from Paris– Inspired, as they said, by the real-life story of French Resistance hero William Grovers-Williams.

Instead what we got was a guy who was capable of clambering up stone walls with his bare hands and proficient in any weapon ever developed by the German war machine. Which is fine, that makes for a good game, but it’s not the game Pandemic was talking about.

Why couldn't it stay this cool?

This thing looks pretty much like Mercs 2 in Paris– which may have been good enough back when this game was originally supposed to come out; but in the past year alone we’ve seen Infamous, Prototype, Red Faction Guerrilla and Assassin’s Creed II all do a way better job at open-world action/adventure way better than anything Pandemic accomplished in Mercenaries 2. What does The Saboteur add to the table aside from stylish camera filters and jaunty caps?


If the reviews at the time of the time of this writing are to believed, not much. The game currently stands at a Metacritic rating of 71%— which is decidedly on the poor side of mediocre. Indeed, most of the complaints seem to be that it’s a good idea with little to no polish whatsoever– which, as a fan of Mercenaries 1 and 2, I find quite familiar.

Puzzler World (DS)

You know those types of games that aren’t actual videogames despite being crammed full of perfectly legitimate games? This is one of those games. This is the sort of thing that’d happen if someone licensed a Will Shortz DS game, and for all I know someone already has– What I’m basically trying to say here is that if you buy this, you’re already 3/10ths of an Old Person and maybe you’re the type of person who still refers to their CD collection as an actual “CD collection”.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Wii)

Shattered Memories is one of those very rare things for the Wii at this moment, a real meat-and-potatoes hardcore gamer’s game that makes use of the Wii’s abilities without being some watered-down port a franchise who’s “real” versions appeared previously on the PS360. Sure, it’s a remake of the 1999 Playstation 1 original, but it’s being done in such a way that the term “remake” isn’t really applicable anymore– This game is doing something you hardly ever see games do at all anymore, it’s removing fighting entirely. If you gain the ire of some supernatural beastie you don’t have the option of whipping out a firearm you’ve developed an instant and alarming proficiency with– all you can do is run. Your only tools are a cell phone and a flashlight– no pistols, no shotguns, no grenade launchers, not so much as a chair leg with a bent nail sticking out of one end. You either evade whatever subconscious horrors lay beyond the next corner or you die.


It’s a truly daring game in nearly every sense and probably deserves more support than Konami is wiling to spare it this Holiday season– Unless you’re a regular of gaming sites or message boards you’ve probably not even heard about Shattered Memories, much less it’s remarkable pedigree or premise– and it’s not like there’s a lot of stuff Konami is promoting this year that they could possibly fear would conflict with Shattered Memories sales, unless they’re under the weird impression that there’s a lot of crossover in the shitty rhythm game/survival horror audiences on the Wii.

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Wherein Bioware faces my terrible ire

Posted by nfinit on December 7, 2009

So, at this point I’ve given up trying to rationalize any game other than Dragon Age Origins as my 2009 Game of the Year– as I mentioned a couple updates ago it’s rare for me to put five hours in a row into any given game at one sitting; with Dragon Age I’ve put 10 hours in a row on at least four separate occasions and I’m now at the point where I’m holding back on playing the game any more simply because I don’t want it to end, something I’ve not done since the bittersweet final chapter of the first Suikoden game. That said, I know full well that once I take out the Big Bad I’m going to instantly re-roll and play again as an evil elf ranger wench hell-bent on revenge against humans and dwarves and probably most elves as well and nailing anything that gets within range of her crotch.

In short, this game is So. Fucking. Good. But it’s very much still a Bioware game, and despite being the unquestioned masters of the Western Role Playing Game they keep doing shit that annoys me. Indeed, the annoyances Bioware refuses to exorcise from their litany of gaming sins goes above and beyond what I list here, but I’m lazy and need something to write and am putting off writing what’s looking to be a truly dreadful Wallet Abuse update.

1: Can we just get rid of the cut scenes already?

Look, we’re less than a month away from 2010. Haven’t we reached the point yet where game developers can tell the stories they want to tell without removing the player from the universe they actually inhabit? I think it’s time we started demanding that if the player does not have some form of input on the events taking place in a given scene then that scene does belongs in the movie that the developer would have rather have made in the first place.

I could rattle off a hundred infuriating examples off the top of my head, but since this is focused on the sins of Bioware I’ll point to the climax to Bioware’s flawed masterpiece, Mass Effect. During it there is a cut scene where your ship, The Normandy, deftly carves its way through the alien robotic demon fleet, dodging sizzling blasts of laser fire and shrapnel from untold scores of shattered starships into the gullet of the enemy mothership and through the other side. It was thrilling; it was magnificent; the player had not one iota of control or input through the entire sequence and thus it wasn’t a game, it was a stunning bit cinematics done in the Unreal 3 engine. Would it have been asking so much to have given the player some control over this scene? Why do I have to sit back and watch as a passive observer? I mean yes, it was fun to watch the first couple times, but by the third play through I was spamming A so I could get back to the point where I was actually controlling my character.

Y’know, other forms of media don’t have to put up with this foolishness. I’m an avid reader; I’ve yet to read a book where halfway through the climax someone’s glued a DVD to the page with the expectation that I’m to watch the next fifteen minutes of the book. When you’re at a movie theater you’re not periodically asked to retrieve a DS from under your seat and play a level of Meteos so you can access the next line of dialog. There’s not a point in the Them Crooked Vultures album where John Paul Jones cuts in between tracks and instructs the listener to visit and download the chords to play rhythm bass for the next track. Why do we continue to put up with this in games? Can’t I just play my fucking videogame as a fucking videogame and not as some sort of horrible retarded monster of two ill-fitting art forms?

Capcom actually did a great job of this with their quick time event system in Resident Evil 4, where the player was asked to interact in a series of button prompts or run the very real risk of being killed during the cut scene itself. Of course, the industry being what it is this idea was summarily ridden into the ground and now every ones hates the idea. But I think the system could still work– at the very least developers could take a look at Half Life 2 and ask themselves if the game ever really needs to be removed from the perspective of the gamer in the first place.


I didn’t realize exactly how badly Bioware’s addiction to load screens had become until I stumbled upon a 8×10 single room apartment in Dragon Age: Origins that required a full 30 second load time to bring up, loot the only thing in the room that could be interacted with (a desk drawer standing in the center of the room), and then wandered back out the door right into another thirty-second load as the game brought up the area I was originally in. DA:O is not alone in this lunacy– anyone else remember how in Mass Effect the Normandy had two levels to the ship, separated by an elevator shaft that maybe extended a dozen feet, yet required a minute of load time for the elevator to traverse those four paltry yards?

I don’t understand the point of this– In Dragon Age: Origins, why wasn’t that room just an adjunct to another, larger building? What did the developers accomplish by taking you out of the game for a minute to loot a single lousy book out of a single lousy dresser drawer? In Mass Effect, why did the developers find it necessary to litter the Normandy with two dozen static NPCs that have no impact at all upon the story line and not just put your crew in those spots and not force the player to load an entire new level whenever trying to accomplish the singular task of selling loot?

The funny thing about Mass Effect was how prevalent those loading elevators eventually became– it seemed like 200 years in the future that all interior design would follow the example of the Wok forest villages of Endor. Bioware has since gone on record as saying that they regret the loading elevators and that they would not make an appearance in Mass Effect 2, that they would be replaced with Dragon Age Origin’s static load screens– My suggestion would be to largely eliminate most loading screens entirely and just stream the levels off the disc as done in open-world games such as Grand Theft Auto 4– these games also feature and abundance of NPCs and spoken dialog, yet you only really notice the load times in the rare occasions where the player builds up enough speed to overtake the game’s ability to load the level into resident memory. It’s not like Mass Effect or Dragon Age were towering masterpieces of graphical fidelity– surely something similar could be done in a traditional WJRPG. At the very least Bioware needs to be smarter about where they find it necessary to load rooms in the first place– instead of a marketplace with a half-dozen separate rooms to load for each merchant or quest giver or bar you wish to encounter, why not just put all these guys out into the streets, or pile them into a larger indoor mall-like area? How is anything gained by forcing a load time every time we wish to interact with a merchant? Speaking of which:

3: Stop dicking us around on inventory

This is actually something the industry is starting to get right, as best observed with Torchlight’s excellent system of enabling the player to sell their loot from anywhere, but it’s something Bioware continues to screw up on– Namely, if you’re going to fill your fantasy/sic-fi/mystical oriental world with us less trinkets stop making it such a pain in the ass to actually carry said trinkets about with you.

Namely I speak of Bioware’s incessant need to keep the player tethered to merchants by strict rationing of inventory slots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if the typical WRPG world weren’t filled with so much  junk that keeps finding its way into player’s packs– and it’s not like we’re kleptomaniacs who keep stealing everything that’s not nailed down; this is the byproduct of mostly useless cruft that for whatever reason finds its way inside treasure chests and freshly killed enemy corpses. If you’re going to have a hard limit on the amount of crap you’re going to allow the player to keep on their person, either allow us to sell from anywhere or give us something useful to do with this detritus instead of just throwing it on the dungeon floor and hoping you’ve not forever cast aside some game-breakingly good warhammer because you need that inventory slot for a batch of nature resist potions.

4: The Hallmark Movie Channel Sex Scene Problem (or: chicks don’t actually wear bras in bed)

Whenever a Bioware game is released there’s invariably a lot of noise made in the mainstream media about whatever scandalous sexual escapades have been included in said game that will invariably warp the minds of our precious, saintly clean children, turning them into future child molesters or worse, Liberals.

What’s never mentioned is that these sex scenes are about as illicit as a Hannah Montana music video. I’m not kidding about the part where chicks keep their bras on–the only real danger these sex scenes may create is a fundamental misunderstanding of how sex works and a spike in fabric burns.

If this is the best Bioware can get away with in the big bad world of 2010, maybe it’s best to not insult everyone’s intelligence and keep the raunchy bits under cover– or hey, maybe better yet, since we all have instant access to streaming German porn anyway, let’s drop the pretensions and just remove the silly things in the first place. Your character makes the moves on another player, there’s a tasteful fade to black, all participants are shown again with mussed hair and mysterious bite marks on their person.

Look, I’m not a prude– I mean, I loves me some streaming German porn– But let’s stop pretending that anyone still cares about this sort of thing. Modern console tech allows for semi-realistic portrayals of onscreen sex. That’s great. Now unless you’ve got the balls to allow us to control these scenes and are willing to show us everything (as SCE Studios Santa Monica has done in their excellent God of War series), why bother? You’re not impressing anyone By promising us tawdry scenes of elf-on-dwarf-on-human-on-elf actions and delivering what amounts to two people in their swimsuits dry humping for ten seconds.

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The BRC Way Better Top 15 part 3: The Whole Damned Thing

Posted by nfinit on December 5, 2009

So earlier this week, The Onion AV Club released their Top 15 Games of the Decade, which broke down thusly:

15. SSX 3 (EA Sports BIG, 2003)
14. The Sims (Electronic Arts, 2000)
13. Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, 2004)
12. Braid (Microsoft Game Studios, 2008)
11. Advance Wars (Nintendo, 2001)
10. Left 4 Dead (Valve, 2008)
9. Final Fantasy XII (Square Enix, 2006)
8. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar Games, 2002)
7. Ico (Sony, 2001)
6. World Of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
5. Portal (Valve, 2007)
4. Rock Band (MTV Games/Electronic Arts, 2007)
3. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Softworks, 2008)
2. Katamari Damacy (Namco, 2004)
1. BioShock (2K Games, 2007)

Which isn’t a terrible list, even if it does veer randomly between artsy high concept stuff (like Braid) and stuff that clearly exists only because of its importance and/or wild popularity (The Sims). But as a guy who thinks about stuff like this way too much, I couldn’t help but notice some strange choices. For instance, I don’t know why Ico is on the list when Shadow of the Colossus was clearly that team’s best effort. If they just had to put a JRPG on the list, why on earth was it Final Fantasy XII–I’m not even sure if XII was the best Final Fantasy of the decade, much less the best game of the decade of its particular genre. Perhaps World of Warcraft belongs there because of importance, but if that’s a defining criteria why is Rock Band on the list over the original Guitar Hero? And is Vice City really the absolute apex of Rockstar’s art? Furthermore why Portal over Orange Box?

“But Nfinit”, you may say, holding a hand over your eyes as you shield your gaze from my divine manliness; “what games would you have picked as the top 15 games of the decade, and more importantly, why?” I’m glad you asked! Also I can easily stretch this out into three updates and play Dragon Age instead of spending time coming up with things to write about.


(Note: I’ve only had access to the PS3 for like eight months total and I have a blind seething rage for Nintendo. Otherwise this will be perfectly fair and accurate. Also this will be mainly console stuff, as the last relevant game my PC is capable of playing is Half-Life 2.)

15: F-Zero GX

I knew I wanted to put a sim racer in this list, but I also knew that if I did that I’d need to include a racing game that a normal person would want to play. It was either this or Burnout 3, and F-Zero GX wins due to its excellent rival racer system and because Sega. It’s probably the best arcade racer to appear over the past two console generations; and all the more legitimate as it actually was an arcade game at one point. Burnout is more chaotic fun and probably better for pick up and play, but the rubberbanding makes racing against the AI an exercise in futility.

14: Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

Collectively Splinter Cell represents the only time the console industry got stealth gaming right, and Chaos Theory is the best (and least infuriating) of the lot. This is also by far the best thing to ever come out of Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy properties; and if Ubisoft were smart they’d have used the break between this game and Splinter Cell: Conviction to re-release the Xbox 1 Splinter Cell games for modern consoles and remind everyone why Splinter Cell matters. The Splinter Cell games are some of the few games to ever successfully convey a true sense of tension– Yeah, Sam is capable of getting himself out of a jam, but its far better not to get into that jam in the first place and the whole process of covering up your mistakes means you’re actually invested in being careful, and dare I say it– stealthy. You’re a spy, not some sort of unstoppable force of nature who’s best off just wiping out the entire military installation on your way to the MacGuffin.

Chaos Theory also represents one of the very few times a western developer has managed to bring together the whole Hollywood-storyline-multiplayer-focus thing that has become de rigueur this console generation without forgetting to include a compelling and worthwhile single player component. Despite Chaos Theory’s outstanding multiplayer modes you won’t feel cheated if you ignore multi and only play the “real” game. Indeed, the two parts of the game are treated almost as equals. This is something we probably won’t see very often ever again thanks to mounting game development costs forcing developers into focusing on one side or the other.

13: Persona 3 FES

I had to put one JRPG up here, and I figured it may as well be the only JRPG of the past ten years that I actually enjoyed playing. That’s largely because Persona 3 took everything we knew about the JRPG genre and tosses out the window. The game isn’t based on some sort of high-magic version of pre-industrial Europe, for instance. It’s based in and around a modern-day Japanese high school. There’s only one real dungeon in the entire game and you’re only allowed in there maybe a third of the time you play, if you try to go in there too often you’ll get sick and screw up progress in the main part of P3 FES– which is a dating sim. In a genre where Squeenix is constantly trying to out-epic itself in an orgy of overwrought angst, P3 FES brings us a story of a bunch of awkward high school kids trying to figure out the whole social network thing while fighting demons and Japan’s terrifying high school examination schedule. If The World Ends With You is any indication, maybe the rest of the industry is taking Atlus’ cue.

12: Resident Evil 4

By this I mean the Gamecube, not the muddied PS2 port or the muddied PS2 port with waggle that appeared on the Wii, I mean the original interpretation as it appeared on the Gamecube. To say RE4 is the best Resident Evil game made is true, but also a little unfair to previous RE games. It’s like saying Dogma is the best Kevin Smith movie. Technically it’s true; but it’s also not in the same genre as anything else Kevin Smith ever did. Resident Evil 4 is not survival horror, nor does it ever intend to be. It’s simply one of the finest action games ever crafted and may well be the single best game to ever appear on the Gamecube. With the departure of Shinji Mikami from Capcom it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see another Resident Evil game live up to RE4’s level of excellence– judging from Capcom’s desperate efforts to ape RE4 with Resident Evil 5, likely not. This could be the last great RE game made until such time as Capcom finally reboots the series.

11: Katamari Damacy

I don’t know if any game I’ve played before or since has managed to exude the same feeling of unbound joy as the first Katamari game produced. Producer Keita Takahashi blended everything together perfectly– the controls, the art style, the dialog, the music, the universe itself– to convey a singular, pure concept of a game that wanted to be played and to be experienced and enjoyed by as many people as possible. Of course, Namco would take this pure, unfettered concept and attempt to make it into yet another stale franchise, with predictable results– but the first two Playstation 2 Katamari games remain true to their core. You start small, roll things up, become bigger, roll bigger things up, until eventually you’re carving great gouts out from the continental shelves. And you can do that in mere minutes using nothing more than two thumbsticks and controls so simple they make later attempts such as the Wiimote feel like a contrivance.

The only thing keeping me from placing this higher is that there’s not a whole lot of actual game to be had in Katamari. You can easily knock out the main portion of the game in an afternoon. It’ll be a throughly enjoyable afternoon, but it’s over all too soon nonetheless. Which is good, in its way– the first two Katamari games never had a chance to outstay their welcome.

10: Grand Theft Auto IV

I never got around to playing any of the Playstation 3 GTA games, and thus I’m full well welling to accept that GTA3 or Vice City or San Andreas may be better games; but GTA IV achieved something wholly remarkable for the realm of console games as far as I’m concerned, and that’s provide actual character development. Rockstar made you care about protagonist Niko Bellic; That’s something most television shows and even movies screw up with most of the time. Even most authors have a hard time showing a character grow and change through the arc of a story; Rockstar’s writers managed to do this in an action-oriented videogame with hardly a scrap of text to be found.

The game itself ain’t too bad, either, provided you don’t mind being bugged by a litany of lonely acquaintances wanting to hit you up for a game of darts when you’re in the middle of tearing through Central Park on a motorcycle while trying to get away from the police

9: Soul Calibur 2

Despite Capcom’s best efforts to kill the genre in the late 90’s, the fighting game has somehow inexplicably hung around, even occasionally managing to produce the occasional standout title– indeed, despite the genre being cluttered with stuff that’s inscrutable to anyone from the outside looking in, it’s managed to remain relevant, and I think Namco’s Soul Calibur series takes a lot of the credit for that. Simply put, the Soul Calibur games are the sort of games where any idiot can feel like they’re making good progress by randomly slapping buttons; yet there’s enough meaty game there to satisfy hardcore gamers as well.

If it wasn’t for the fact that it was released in 1999– and thus ineligible for the whole “decade” thing, I’d put the first Soul Calibur here instead. But while it’s not as important as Soul Calibur 1 was, Soul Calibur 2 has Ivy, and that more than makes up for Soul Calibur 1 providing the entire reason for the Dreamcast to exist.

(also, this over Street Fighter IV? Well, yeah. The Soul Calibur games are inherently more fun than Street Fighter games. Street Fighters are only really enjoyable at a high competitive level and are generally unplayable using a standard gamepad. Not only do you not need a $120 accessory to get full enjoyment from a Soul Calibur game; Namco’s actually went their way to provide something resembling a compelling single-player action RPG with SC2. Plus, you don’t feel the need to put in 80 hours of work with a single player before you feel like you know what you’re doing with SC2. The Soul Calibur games are the most accessable fighting games ever made, and as a result may well be the most fun you can have in a 1-on-1 fighter regardless of skill level. If you’re playing videogames as a job, Street Fighter 4 cant’ be touched.)

8: Ikaruga

The past decade has been terrible for console shooters. Virtually everything new and interesting to come out of the genre has been a direct result of ZUN’s PC-only Touhou Project. It seems like the actual commercial games industry has moved on; the genre itself hasn’t been relevant on a mass market scale since the SNES. And not without good reason; shooter devs did a very through job of drilling down into their core fanbase to the point where the genre became an indecipherable mess to anyone new to games.

So to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure if a shooter belongs on the list, save for the fact that shooters were and remain my first love in gaming and I wanted one here. On the console side there have been maybe three relevant shmups released in the past decade– Ikaruga, Gradius V and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. I happen to love all three of these games, but Ikaruga is the more inventive and interesting of the three.

All that being said– Ikaruga is an outstanding game and is itself one of the best shmups ever made. It’s polarity shot mechanic makes it as much of a puzzle game as it is a shooter, and on top of that involves nascent elements of rhythm based gameplay with its combo system. But sadly it’s still too difficult and too frustrating to ever be enjoyed by anyone who’s not a hardcore gamer who isn’t already familiar with and willing to put up with the various bullshit involved in playing shooters.

Indeed, Ikaruga is so inscrutable to anyone not in the core audience that I’m having a hard time justifying it’s position here at all. If you’re not into traditional console shooters and/or into having your teeth kicked in and trying to rationalize that as “having a good time”, put something more casual friendly here instead, like a nice friendly Sly Cooper game.

7: Forza Motorsport 3

I was hesitant to place something I’d recently played on this list, as I think a game needs time to be judged correctly– but let’s be honest, the Forza games have outclassed Gran Truismo 4 since the day Forza 1 was released, and there’s just no good reason to go back to Forza 2 thanks to unlimited rewinds. Forza 3 is simply the best (if not the most comprehensive) sim console racer ever made, at least until GT5 is released.

6: Knights of the Old Republic

I’ve only recently started playing Dragon Age, and I may well have to adjust this ranking once I’m done with it, but right now I think KOTOR represents the best game Bioware’s ever put out, and on top of that may well be the best Star Wars-related property to be released since Lucasart’s holy trinity of Tie Fighter/Xwing/Xwing vs Tie Fighter.

But beyond that, KOTOR represents the point where it became possible to take console western RPGs seriously. Yes, there was a PC version, and yes the PC version is probably the definitive version of the game– but at the same, Xbox KOTOR wasn’t a regrettable experience. Indeed, Xbox KOTOR felt decidedly like a console game, albiet a console game with the richness and depth of the very best Bioware RPGs. It’s an ability Bioware was able to expand upon in Jade Empire, Mass Effect and most recently Dragon Age. Thanks to KOTOR, console gamers are able to enjoy “grown up” RPGs without any compromise made to controls or immersion– the fact that it’s a damned fine game and one of the best sci-fi RPG games ever crafted is just gravy.

5: Ninja Gaiden 1

For the amount of technical innovation that’s popped up over the past two console cycles that represent gaming in the ‘aughts, there have been surprisingly few genuinely new gameplay genres that have popped up. In fact, I can point to maybe four off the top of my head– the motion control minigame collections that sprouted up as a result of the massive popularity of Wii Sports; open world sandbox games of the sort pioneered by Grand Theft Auto 3, Guitar/Band games as represented by Guitar Hero and Rock Band and my favorite of the bunch, the 3d brawler as introduced by Capcom’s Devil May Cry, and for my money Ninja Gaiden for the Xbox represents the height of the art form.

Ninja Gaiden does that very rare thing where the controls are so good you’re no longer aware you’re controlling the game. If you need to perform a forward diving roll to dodge under the katana of a spider ninja, it just sort of happens, nor are you aware you’re inputting the command to lop that ninja’s head off once you pop up behind him. Nor are you aware of the subtle interactions that must take place to correctly perform a wall run; the commands necessary to pull off the perfect Izuna Drop; the confluence of events to run up a wall and slash an demon in half on your descending arc. Ninja Gaiden perfects the concept of flow, and does so in such a way to make lesser action games feel dumb and clumsy by comparison. Not even Ninja Gaiden’s sequel for the 360 got this concept quite right– although next year’s Bayonetta looks quite promising indeed.

The only thing Ninja Gaiden doesn’t get right, and the only thing keeping it from being the best action game ever made, is it’s frankly unforgivably atrocious camera. While the ultimate goal of the game was to combine 16-bit action game simplicity with the complexity of a 3d fighter; the camera lets everything down, leading to cheap hits an otherwise avoidable deaths. It’s my understanding that Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden Sigma may have corrected this, but Ninja Gaiden 2’s camera was just as bad, I have a hard time believing Team Ninja would have regressed to an inferior, frustration-inducing camera for its sequel. In any event, it’s a fantastic game, perhaps the ultimate 3d action game– it’s just a shame that it’s difficulty and frustration-inducing camera keeps it away from anyone but the hardest of the hardcore.

4: Bioshock

Yes, it falls apart in the final act, yes it doesn’t really hold up in replays and yes the good/evil mechanic was largely over-hyped and underutilized, but man the first 3/4ths of that game was one of the best games I’ve ever played in my entire life. I don’t know how to explain it any better than that– it was uneven and frustrating in that regard, but the game had you traipsing around in a unique and mesmerizing universe complete with fantastic gameplay, better writing, and some of the most interesting and fully realized characters in any game before or sense, and all this in a freaking FPS, for chrissake. Bioshock is full of flaws, but the game that holds those flaws together is so good that it deserves its place in the top five.

Bioshock took a tired, stale genre and made it vital and interesting again– And while it couldn’t keep up the facade through the entire game, what was there was outstanding.

3: Fallout 3

Until such time as I get to reflect on the impact of Dragon Age: Origins, this is my favorite RPG of the generation, and in no small part thanks to the fact that Fallout 3 is one of the greatest aimless games ever made. Sure, you can follow the main story path of FO3, but that’s not the point and doing so shows a remarkable lack of imagination on the player’s part and entirely too much ambition– No, the point of Fallout 3 is just wandering about the wasteland until something incomparably fascinating happens your way. Perhaps you’ll stumble across a desperate caravan being hounded by relentless waves of radscorpions, or maybe a helicopter full of bad dudes in full power armor will drop on top of your head and start shooting everything that moves. Maybe you’ll be beset by a pack of rabid mutant space bears, or maybe you’ll attract the ire of a stubborn missile-wielding robotic sentinel that simply will not go away. Pretty much anything can happen out in the wasteland, but mostly they involve sudden instances of random violence instigated by angry men with laser guns. I’ve dropped a good 120 hours into this game and maybe 20 of those actually had something to do with the story itself, the rest has been simply wandering around and experiencing the barren, absurdly violent grandeur of a radiated and ruined Washington DC.

2: Orange Box

Half Life 2. Portal. Team Fortress 2– Individually, any one of those titles deserve a spot on any list of “Top whatever of the Decade”, the fact that they’re all bundled along with Half Life Episodes 1&2 makes for an absurdist farce of gaming awesomeness. Of course, there’s no good reason you should be playing any of these games on a console if your PC is capable of running them; but Valve did go out of their way to make the transition to game pad as painless as possible and as a whole this package represents something of a change in shift for Valve and their treatment of consoles as afterthoughts to viable platforms for development.

1: Shadow of the Colossus

If you were to ask me to sit down and show you one game to explain why I love gaming, it’d be Shadow of the Colossus.

From a standpoint of pure gameplay technique I can make no excuse for SotC to be placed so highly on this list– That honor would probably go to Ninja Gaiden. But SotC goes beyond that– It’s the extraordinarily rare case of a game that makes you give a damn about what’s happening within it, about the story (as admittedly thin it is) about the characters (exactly three, one of which is you; one of which remains unconscious through the entire game; one of which is a horse) and the world they inhabit. A lot is made of gaming press trying to validate the genre to some unseen higher entity as “art”, we’re constantly asking when we will we produce our own Citizen Kane, when will we produce a game that can bring someone to tears– I contend that
Shadow of the Colossus is art, or at least as close as we’ve come to it. I will admit to weeping openly while playing this game, caught up in the story of a lone teenage kid caught in the middle of a desperate gambit with entities far beyond his control to save the life of the girl he loves, of the sacrifices made; of the feeling of hurt and sorrow felt as you drive your blade into the heart of each of the 12 silent, unknowable titular colossi.

It is the sort of story that can only be told within the medium of games– And is unique for that, as at no point does Shadow of the Colossus lower itself to Hollywood aspirations. If this industry is to ever get over the inferiority complex that it’s brought upon itself by the constant comparisons it forces upon itself with the motion picture industry, its games like SotC that need to be looked to.

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