October 16th, 2010

Enchanting Mermaid

And, Of Course, Bobby Darin's "Beyond The Sea" Is Playing On Sirius As I Write This. Jesus....

I needed something to do today.  Eventually, I get a call from my old friend, Vera.  She and her cousin are going shopping and wanted to know if I wanted to tag along.  Wander around the stores and finish up at Portillo's.  Can't go wrong with Portillo's.  I jump in.

We also stop by a music store.  I wanted to look, anyway.  Down in Florida, a bunch of retirees have started a 60's rock cover band.  They play every week, and mom and dad love listening to them.  It has apparently triggered some interest on my dad's part to learn to play guitar.  So I've been looking around to get a feel for what I can expect to find and pay for a trainer.

So we wander through the shop.  At the keyboards, I do a quick riff of themes from Family Guy and the Muppet Show.  The drums already have people playing them, so I didn't bother.  Then the three of us get to the guitars.  As we look them over, Vera asks, "How about a guitar for you?"

Nah.  I'm a piano man and I like the drums.  I'm not a rocker.

She picks one up.  I believe it was a Fender Strat (my knowledge of the makes and models of guitars is on par with my knowledge of cars).  "Come on.  This guitar makes anyone cool."

I look it over and ask, Does it come in blue?

They did not have that particular one in blue, but she did find another.  She presented it to me and smiled, "Here!  Blue!"

I took it and looked it over and told her, Well, teal, anyway.

"That's not teal," her cousin says.

Vera's cousin is an interior designer.  She can spend hours talking about the differences between off white, oatmeal, and eggshell.  I roll my eyes and ask, Okay, so what color is it?


I just locked up.  Meanwhile, asshole Vera turns around, declares, "Oh!  I've been looking for a new... fog machine... yeah...." and starts walking away as I put the guitar back.

On the way out to the car, Vera's cousin is asking, "What did I say?"


Raise Your Joysticks!

While waiting for the ladies to check out during shopping, I needed to kill a little time.  I have a cell phone I don't use very much.  I turn it on and decide, let's see what it has for games.  I had downloaded Pitfall for it, and decided to see what else there was.

See, I don't like cell phones as game machines.  The keypads are not designed for game reactions.  Now, some designers do compensate.  Pitfall incorporates extra keys to jump in a particular direction instead of relying on combinations.  It's a help, but still not the most intuitive, but then again, they are limited by the delivery device for the medium.

I search through for games, and stumble across South Park Mega Millionaire.  I'm one of the original die hard South Park fans (I have Trey Parker's student films from the University Of Colorado on VHS somewhere), and I immediately buy it, $7, I don't even bother with the description.  The phone only has 20Mb of internal storage.  The game is written in Java and is just over half a meg.  Perfect.

The plot?  You know those Japanese game shows?  The ones that don't reward knowledge but punish ignorance?  The South Park kids go on one.  The host explains that they put greedy Americans on roller skates and send them on a risky obstacle course.

The game is a platformer, but uses the roller skates to give it a twist.  You control your character with momentum.  To stop him instantly, press down, and you can jump.  You also get rated on achievements, such as farts and concussions.  The presentation is a riot.  The sound effects are great, but all the in game instructions are Engrish.  Completing courses, for example, tells you, "You success!" and other stuff.

While playing this and enjoying it (it's actually quite fun, it's a good little casual game), I realized something.  I realized what is wrong with the current crop of video games.

No one is making games anymore, they are making tech demos.

Not everyone, mind you.  Harmonix gets it with Rock Band.  Neversoft over with Guitar Hero, though, is more interested in pushing limits than making something enjoyable.  Rock Band, you progress through perseverence.  Guitar Hero, if you can't keep up with the boss battles, you never get any further.  Rock Band, you can still enjoy even if you aren't the best player.  Guitar Hero?  If you aren't the best, you never get further in the game and you lose your enjoyment.

There's a great game on the Game Cube called Ikaruga.  It was designed by Treasure, the geniuses who gave us the original Contra games.  I have NEVER beaten the game.  I can count the number of times I've made it to level 4 on one hand.  And yet, I still play the game every once in a while.  Even though it kicks my ass and I know I'll never beat it (I saw someone get through the last level.  I will never be able to do it), I keep playing it.

Why?  Because it's fun.  The play mechanics of switching the polarity of your shots and having to do it several times a second at times adds to it.  The game is never dull, and when you get blown up, you have no one to blame but yourself.  You immediately see what you should have done differently.  It's hugely difficult, but not quite impossible, if you can just....

When video games hit their Renaissance with the Sega Genesis and SNES, tie ins became huge.  Games related to other media or other media incorporating games.  This was actually the start of the problem.  Video games developed a separate identity as part of the merchandising machine instead of standing on their own as their own entertainment.  As technology advanced, people became more interested in creating something slick instead of good.  First person shooters with derivative action and most of the attention of the dev staff focused on the visual.  I have nothing but love for the boys at id, but the final battle in Quake 4 was laughably easy compared to everything before that I'd gone through.  I was expecting a battle that would make me long for those contests.  Nothing.

Sony tried to one up Nintendo with the PS3's Dual Shock controller.  They incorporated motion control into it, but they didn't really do anything with it.  Uncharted, you tilt the controller to chuck a grenade.  Just make that a button press, will ya?  Even worse was Lair.  You flew your dragon by holding the controller and tilting it the way you wanted.  It was horrible, horrible, horrible.  It was so bad, Sony eventually released a patch enabling you to pilot your dragon with the regular sticks instead (still wasn't a great game, but at least the goddamn dragon was doing what I wanted it to).  Factor 5 never recovered from it and went under.

M$ is working on Project Natal, a motion controller for the 360.  Sony, meanwhile, has the Move, a motion controller with a ball on the end, making it look like a Wiimote blowing a bubble.  The early footage of the games shows gimmicky gameplay.

Before, every time technology advanced, people took advantage of it to create better games.  The Atari was limited, but when Coleco advanced things, suddenly, games closer to the arcade with mutliple levels, background music, and more were possible.  Games became better.  Then, the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System came along, easier to program and more capacity.  Games got better.  The 16 bit era hit.  Games got better (this was partly why the Neo Geo didn't do as well.  For all the hubbub about 330Meg, there was really nothing to justify the price tag.  The super-de-duper system didn't make games better).  The PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and N64, with 3D capabilities?  Games got better.

Now, we've hit a point of diminishing returns.  There are really no new advances to be made graphically, this is pretty much as good as it gets.  Devs have spent so much time working on flashy graphics, they have forgotten to make the games good.  People don't buy games for pretty pictures, they buy them to have fun.  And a lot of your games don't do that anymore.

I hate achievement goals.  It makes you replay a game just for the machismo factor of you did this nearly impossible feat.  But it doesn't make the game better.  Unless you really enjoy the game, you aren't going to care.  The newest Kingdom Hearts game has just a few sets, but to complete the game, you have to complete them with each of the three player characters.  There's no real variety to their stories or attacks.  The only reason is to learn the ending.  And the ending just isn't good enough to justify playing the same thing three times like that.

So I look at the PlayStation Move and Project Natal and wonder, How does this make games better?  Nintendo gets it right more often than them, but plenty of devs don't do it right (I'm looking at you, Data Designs).  Meanwhile, a goofy little cell phone game that could have been banged out by the dev staff in two weeks, tops, provides more kicks than the games with multimillion dollar budgets.

The reason I say the writer is more important in comics is because, when people open the comic, they are saying, "Tell me a story."  Well, gameplay is more important in video games.  And everyone is doing everything but that nowadays.  And it's killing my first hobby love.