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April 9, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»dreamcast

Hi-def for the low-tech

Eight years ago, Sega put out the first hi-def console. The Dreamcast was able to output in 640x480 VGA mode for most games, offering a sharper picture and more accurate colors than any other console out there. Then Sega made a lot of very silly business decisions and collapsed into a largely insensate heap. Today it only revives itself long enough to output terrible Sonic the Hedgehog spinoffs, and the Dreamcast is considered long-dead.

I still have a Dreamcast around, because you can't play Virtual On Garou: Mark of the Wolves, or the original Jet Grind Radio anywhere else. It's also really homebrew-friendly, if I ever decided to get back into that, and I used to have disks that would play movies or SNES games. And now I have an HD TV to go with it, one that even accepts a VGA input.

Unfortunately, I lost my VGA box for the Dreamcast. At least, I think I lost it. Maybe it's in the basement from when I moved last year, but I didn't see it after five minutes of looking around down there, and that means I probably threw it away. It was a little broken anyway. The point is, I need a new one. And unless there's a different, VGA box-filled Internet out there that I can't find, my only options are: A) pay $40 to have one imported from the UK, or B) make my own.

In other words, televisions finally caught up with the Dreamcast, and I still can't afford to play in high-definition.

Why isn't there just a VGA port on the back of the machine in the first place? Why don't most game consoles put their outputs out where you can get to them, like DVD players or other AV equipment? Maybe it's to simplify the circuit boards, and bring down costs. Personally, I suspect it's so that they can make more money by selling cables.

Anyway, if anyone's got a spare Sega VGA box, it's a seller's market. I've noticed that Gamecube cables are already getting hard to find, and they changed the socket on the Wii. Stock up now.

March 22, 2007

Filed under: gaming»media»online

Shoryuken

I have no idea where it originally came from. Joystiq reposted it today, but it's all over flickr and ROFL CAT.

March 20, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»networking

A Half-pint of Disoriented Atomic Matter

The Nintendo Wifi system is not terribly effective. I had an elaborate introduction involving Web 2.0 to explain why this was the case, but then I realized that I would be better off saving that material for another time and getting to the problem more directly. Basically, psu writes at Tea Leaves that the problem of Friend Codes is not going to be solved any time soon, because Nintendo doesn't care about investing in the infrastructure it would take to catch up to services like XBox Live.

And psu has a valid point--the Friend Code system, which requires players to put in a different 12-16 digit number in each game in order to play multiplayer against a specific person, would require the company to put into place a lot of servers and centralized record-keeping services. It is nice to have this information, because people can mess around with it or use it to rank themselves. But it's also true that the Friend codes are not the end of the world, and they add a little bit of security, which can be helpful in a kid-friendly environment.

With that said, and admitting full well that this is not at all what psu meant to address, this is not the main reason that people dislike Nintendo's online service. It's not the reason that they're upset when it was carried over from the DS to the Wii. The reason that they're upset is because the service fails at the basic tasks of creating a good multiplayer experience, even without the bells and whistles of stat tracking and online ladders.

I've written before about how Nintendo has half-baked its Internet offerings online. They're unbalanced and easily exploited, and as a result I don't even bother to go online with Mario Kart or Metroid any more. But even if we set the games themselves aside, the matching service simply doesn't work effectively.

Say you're relatively new to gaming, and you want to play something online. So you load up a NiWiFi game, and you tap on the relevant icons. At this point, you wait. And you wait. And you wait some more. The four slots onscreen for other players--four players seems to be the maximum allowed, for some unexplained reason--will blink on, and then sometimes they'll blink back off without explanation. Eventually, the game will start, and then two minutes into the match at least two of the other players will disconnect when it becomes clear that they're not winning.

This is not a satisfactory process. It begins badly, it continues badly, and it ends badly. At no point is the player given any real information on what the system is doing, or why these players are being chosen. Moreover, once the match has been created, the game operates client-to-client, which opens up a whole new set of cheats and exploits, and lowers the ability for Nintendo to intervene with patches and quality control. It is not a coincidence that when Internet gaming really hit, it almost always used a client-server relationship, and it continues to do so. Servers create virtual spaces, gain their own communities and continuities, and give administrators the ability to slow down or kick cheaters off. Without those assets, we get to find out exactly how annoying most people online actually are.

Instead, Nintendo has basically chosen to go the cheapest route as possible, meaning that they rent servers from Gamespy for this crippled matching and pay for nothing else. I understand the impulse, but I think it's hard to claim that even the uninitiated are satisfied with this kind of system. Even casual gamers would like to see the people they're playing before they play them, and would like to spend as little time as possible waiting to connect. And it would be nice to have more options than just "random match" or "friends match," so that players can have some control over their experience. As it is, playing DS (and now Wii) games online is an opaque, frustrating hassle. Friend Codes are just an easily-grasped example of how messed up the system is.

March 8, 2007

Filed under: gaming»design

Sound Games

These experimental games from GDC sound incredibly cool. They use sound input, either from a music file or live from the player, to generate and control the game. I'm especially intrigued by this:

Designer Sean Barret created a Tempest style game, where the player has two shooters representing the bass and treble. As enemies come down the field, your shoots created the notes according to the row you were at (the bass blaster had five or so lines reserved, while treble had eight or nine). In this scenario, the game was forcing you to play the song. To prove this point, we witness the horrible sounds made when shots are fired randomly or targets missed.

I once thought it would be cool to make a rail shooter that worked in a similar way, but where the environment was generated from the wave--bass sounds might create the ground landscape, while treble would create enemies or obstacles. Barret's take is more interesting, because it lets the player trigger the music from a landscape generated from the sound file, thus giving the player a real investment (similar to the incentive of finishing a Guitar Hero song, not because of the score, but because you want it to sound good).

March 4, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»lunar_knights

Why I stopped playing Lunar Knights

Consider this a very personal, and massively unreliable, review:

  • You know... for kids! What little drama exists in this game unfolds at the level of "Captain Planet." The voice work is annoying. Nobody has a sense of humor, or (for that matter) depth. As someone in their mid-twenties who plays video games, I'm aware that often my entertainment may be far beneath my chronological age, but it doesn't have to rub it in.
  • There's no need to be difficult. At the same time, I can't imagine a kid actually playing through this thing. Lunar Knights is sometimes irredeemably difficult and cheap. For example, there's a dash move available by double-tapping in any direction. It drains energy, but it's helpful. But when dashing, enemies do a lot more damage--three times as much, I think, which is enough to turn several parts of the game into one-hit kills. Not to mention the fact that the dash is oddly touchy for a mechanic that's been around for years, and often triggers accidentally.
  • The Four Seasons, this ain't. Reviews I have read have been very impressed with the game's weather system, which gives you a variety of climates you can choose when playing through one of the dungeons. Again, this is not a new idea--it's basically the same thing as the dark/light dichotomy used by Zelda and Metroid, or Soul Reaver's spirit world. But you can't change climate except by exiting a level, moving through a set of (clumsily-designed) menus on another part of the world map, and then re-entering the level from the start. Also, my version seems to have been faulty--on the one level where you have to do this four times to open a locked door, the climate refused to change properly on the fourth room. No matter what I did, the room would not respond to the climate, which left me stuck.

I liked Boktai, the game that led to Lunar Knights, for its odd use of a solar sensor to tie the real and virtual worlds together. It was cute. It was also not terribly complicated, and I think that worked in its favor. For this outing, Kojima has displayed his typical sense of humor by including not only the climate and the "sun brightness" display on the top screen, but also the wind speed, temperature, and humidity. They don't do anything--it's more like he's joking about how the game no longer responds to the player's environment, but has to make its own in obsessive detail.

But I think this joke also reveals the big problem with Lunar Knights. Boktai was a fairly simple game, which was a large part of its charm. This is not. It has piles upon piles of complications thrown in--an annoying just-in-time block system that has to be mastered in order to survive combat, the pointless climate system, aiming lock-on (!!!) in an isometric game--combined with silly and lightweight writing. Simultaneously, there is too much and too little going on here.

February 27, 2007

Filed under: gaming»perspective

Memoirs of a Gamestop Employee

Where to start with a rant by Gamestop employees on how much they hate you, the customer? Ars Technica links to a messageboard post by a store clerk who was incensed by Kotaku's frustration with automated calls. How dare these uppity customers get upset by what basically amounts to telemarketing?

What basically comes across in the rant is the frustration and contempt for the customer. People call in who don't know the correct name for what they want to buy (although, to be fair, Ninja Garden does sound like a lot of fun), or they don't know the difference between a game system and its software (some kid's parents, perhaps?), and for these sins they are considered by the author to be the lowest form of life on the planet. He is also amazed that anyone would not be interested in the pre-order system, even though it is an alien abomination completely unique to game retailers--no-one asks me to pre-order movies, or books, or anything else that I buy off a shelf.

Clearly, he's not being supported or trained well, and he's bought the company line about its ridiculous policies. That's not necessarily his fault: he is probably young, and stupid, and we have all been there once. I don't like the game retailers very much, and I've tried to avoid them, but I wonder if we could actually step back from making this about video game stores and look at it from a wider context. The snarky, hateful clerk is a staple of speciality or geek retail niches--the snobby record store guy, for example, who makes snide comments about people who want to buy something that doesn't meet their standards of hipness. We could change some of the language in that rant and easily have complaints about customers who want to buy the wrong wines, or the wrong organic foods, or the wrong movies ("Batman Forever?!? You pedant!").

And yet these venues have not vanished yet, although in some cases (independent movie stores, small record shops) they are in danger of being eaten alive by the chains. I am no fan of giant chain stores and corporations, seeing as how they are grotesque avatars of The Man, but you have to admit that they usually put more effort into their training and hiring practices. They did not get to be large, abusive chain stores by scheming up new ways to alienate their customers. Maybe Gamestop is just leading the way by scaling up the sneer of small business into industrial proportions. Now I can get the distaste of a small store and an exploitative global business model all in one transaction!

These are exciting times.

February 25, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»hotel_dusk

Darkness Falls

Let's start by looking at the things that Hotel Dusk does right:

  • It has little to no violence, even though it is basically an homage to noir. The only time a gun is fired is in flashbacks to the protagonist's police career.
  • The characterizations really are excellent. The writing might not quite be as good as Chandler, but it's better than most pulp. For a video game, that's really rather impressive.
  • The art backs up the writing. There's some sort of filter on the 3D that makes the hotel agreeably grungy and run-down, and the shaky pencil-sketch style for each character is impressionistic while still capturing a lot of subtleties.
  • Its plot, which revolves around art theft and family reconciliation, is a step above the average video game, most of which aspire mainly to the heady heights of Saturday morning cartoons.
Is it a perfect game? I'm not even sure it's a game, technically. What little amount of puzzle-solving and inventory management exists is basically just a way of moving the narrative forward. In fact, there are several points where the interactive segments don't really serve any purpose except to liven things up a bit--a bowling mini-game, for example, where you won't even make it through a full set. There's no real reason for you to have to go bowling. They could have just written "Kyle rolls the ball toward the pins." But it's like they thought "hey, while you're reading, wouldn't it be fun if you could be a little more involved?" They weren't really making a more book-like game, just a more game-like book.

This is a long way of saying that you will only enjoy Hotel Dusk if you actually enjoy reading. It is, as critics have alleged, a very verbose piece of software, and the text does take its sweet time making it across the screen. The fact that the writing is very good seems to have only made a cursory impact. For people who don't actually relish the experience of reading, the kind of people who don't list it as one of their hobbies when someone asks, the problems with text speed and clumsy puzzle design no doubt loom large. I would again protest that Hotel Dusk is certainly no more tedious or overladen with narrative than your average Squaresoft RPG, it simply does not hide that behind slick CGI.

Maybe I was just willing to forgive a lot. And it's possible that I'm the only person who feels this way, or that it's a game that caught me in one of my book-intensive phases. But moving from Hotel Dusk to Lunar Knights, a game that has been much applauded for its mechanics but in content embodies the most spastic tendencies of a marketing-driven anime, has been eye-opening. When I play a game like Lunar Knights that's been clearly aimed at children or short-attention-span adults, I find that my attention span likewise wanders quickly. Hotel Dusk may be long-winded, but it was not talking down to me, and I appreciate that.

February 12, 2007

Filed under: gaming»society»class_and_race

The First 11 Black Videogame Stars

Although readers at Wired and Joystiq have gotten sidetracked by the inclusion of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, this list of Black protagonists in videogames is interesting. As I wrote in Guns, Gangs, and Greed, one striking feature of these lists to me is always that so few Black protagonists (from an already limited set) are either A) original intellectual property, meaning that they were created for the game instead of being licensed characters or based on real celebrities, or B) female. The industry's got a long way to go.

February 5, 2007

Filed under: gaming»impressions»ds

Reading Miscomprehension

A defining feature of reviews for Hotel Dusk on the DS has been that it requires the player to read a lot. "...it's very wordy, forcing you to read long passages between short bursts of walking around," says Gamespy. You'll have to excuse me if I seem a little annoyed. It's just... well, have you seen Final Fantasy games lately? The ones that are trumpeted by most gamers as one of the consistent high points of the medium?

I hadn't played a Final Fantasy in years, and a few months ago I felt like maybe I'd been missing something. So I started a new save on Belle's copy of FFX. It took ten minutes before I could press a button--I think it was to go right a few feet--at which point the game took control again for another movie sequence.

Now, I like movie sequences as much as the next person, maybe more. But five hours into the game, it had pretty much maintained the same dynamic:

  1. Finish watching a movie.
  2. Walk the character a few feet, and possibly press a button.
  3. OPTIONAL: fight a battle.
  4. Trigger a new movie sequence.
  5. GOTO 1.
Is that a video game? Or a way to stretch a mediocre two-hour film out over 10-20 hours of gameplay?

So now Hotel Dusk does much the same thing, with stronger characterization and a fun little noir storyline, but it's text-based so reviewers are having trouble. My only problem with it is that the text moves a bit slowly for my tastes, but there are worse crimes: I can only play Sonic Rush in Japanese, a language I don't understand, the dialog is so very, very bad.

This is why gaming needs new reviewers: not because they're on the take or obsessed with sex and violence, but because so many of them are frightened by the written word.

January 30, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Market Price

Original trade-in price offered by Gamestop on five games: ~$45

Income from selling said games on eBay instead, not counting shipping: $106.52

Difference between Gamestop and eBay prices: $61.52, or 136% of the trade-in price

I didn't even have to try very hard. eBay has an ISBN database now, so usually I could type one number and have the whole listing completed for me. Retailers had better hope no-one realizes that it's basically the same amount of hassle whether I wait around at the post office or at the store. Not to mention, postal workers rarely ask me if I want to preorder anything.

Although I was tempted by their crafty "stamps" pitch. Next time, USPS. Next time.

Future - Present - Past