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January 27, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software

Grey Market

I'm selling some games on eBay this weekend. They're only up for three days, because I'm impatient that way. If you're looking for a pretty good deal, I think these are fair prices, and they're more than I'd get from the thieves at EBGames. Of course, just between us friends, I'm not selling all of these because they are too good to keep, if you know what I mean. So here's what we've got.

  • Dragon Quest: Rocket Slime for DS: This one genuinely is a pretty good game. It's got more puns than you can shake a stick at, a broad slapstick sense of humor, and the bizarre tank battles are really a lot of fun. Plenty of item collecting for the completist.
  • Yoshi's Island DS: It's not bad, but it's got some really cheap moments in it, and I don't feel like it has quite the same magic as the original. I made it through four worlds, and then just couldn't bring myself to struggle past the fifth.
  • Mechwarrior: Phantom Assault for DS: Now this one, like Star Trek Assault, has been unfairly maligned in my opinion. Also, it seems to be hard to find. I really enjoyed it, but it doesn't have a lot of replay value and it requires another copy for the multiplayer. The touch control is worthless, but once you get used to the face-buttons-as-dual-thumbsticks mechanic, it plays pretty well.
  • Animal Crossing for Gamecube: If you're not going to play it every day, it's not worth it, and we don't. I actually think that this is better than the DS version, since the calendar is more creative and there are NES games included, but it does lack the WiFi connection.
  • Children of Mana for DS: Yeah, this one's kind of a stinker. Imagine Diablo with a Secret of Mana skin, then make it boring. I think my main problem is that there's just not a lot of depth to it. Not my cup of tea, but you might like it better.
  • Legend of Zelda Collector's Edition for Gamecube: Now that Nintendo's releasing these over the Virtual Console for Wii, I'm sure this will be quickly made obsolete. On the other hand, that requires you to actually own a Wii, which seems to be about as likely as owning a handful of precious gold at this point. Besides, for the price of the VC games, you'd probably pay as much as my Buy it Now price. For someone who doesn't own the Classic Series Zelda (I do) and likes the N64 games (I don't, clearly), this is a nice package.

All games start low and have a Buy It Now price of $20, except for Animal Crossing at $10 and Zelda at $40, because I'm CRAAAZY! They end Tuesday at around 12pm ET.

Speaking of the grey market, I have to say that in retrospect the imported DS Lite is looking like a pretty good purchase. When I first got it, and then they announced that they'd be releasing it a month later domestically, it looked like I'd paid a big premium just for the blue color. Now, of course, Nintendo hardware is backordered everywhere, and the import prices have skyrocketed. Brinstar and I don't look quite as silly now. Well, relatively speaking, I guess.

January 25, 2007

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Armed and Dangerous

As Hackaday observed, I wish I had an industrial robot to play with. A couple of robotic engineers linked the Wii controller up to a robot arm with a fast response time, and quickly had it playing tennis or swordfighting. The motions are basically canned and matched to a set of prerecorded swings, but they explain how it could be converted to a more real-time system.

I wonder what the price tag on one of those arms would be? Not even just for this. I'd train it to spray water at the cat.

January 3, 2007

Filed under: gaming»software»scurge

DS Review: Scurge

Why did they spell it Scurge instead of "scourge?" Probably because they were trying so hard not to name this "Metroid Fusion."

Does that seem unfair? It shouldn't. Southpeak is obviously a big fan of Nintendo's last 2D Metroid, since they've ripped off the premise (an alien infection that takes over everything in its path), the protagonist (a female bounty hunter in an armored spacesuit, guided by a computer program), the basic mechanism for progress (gradual upgrades make new portions of the map accessible), and the musical themes (minimalist space techno).

What they didn't steal is the infection counter, which has to be periodically reset at save points, and a 3/4 perspective. The combination makes Scurge a lot more action-oriented than Metroid games--exploration takes a back seat to firepower and large hordes of enemies. It's not a bad change, and for newer visitors to the Metroid series, probably not significant. Since Nintendo seems hellbent on ignoring 2D in favor of 3D Metroid offshoots, it's nice to see someone else taking up the slack, and handling it well.

December 28, 2006

Filed under: gaming»software»zelda

Flat Notes

Ocarina of Time is, according to Gamerankings, the greatest game of all time. It has a composite ranking of 97.9%. This is unbelievably overrated.

I'm trying to be fair to Ocarina. I recognize that it's an older title, that it was the first Zelda to move into 3D, and that countless people identify strongly with the title. I don't really expect to convince anyone else. But I'm really having to struggle to keep playing, something that didn't happen with the older 2D Zeldas, which I likewise didn't experience until much past their publication.

First of all, this is an ugly game. And I don't mean just in terms of the technical bits and pieces, since the N64 was home to the nastiest texture filtering functions ever written. Even ignoring the muddy textures that were common to consoles of the period, the art direction here varies wildly. The Great Fairies look like garish dominatrixes, for the love of all that is holy, and the Gorons are just annoying. This is even more frustrating when it's clear that a lot of work went into parts of the game, like the day/night cycle--it's irritating, largely pointless, and seems to exist just for the effect, but the shifting colors as the sun rises or sets are very pretty.

Second, the Z-targeting system doesn't work. It just doesn't, or at least not fast enough to be useful. I end up aiming at walls, random objects, or faraway enemies instead of where I actually want to strike. Putting double-duty on the trigger as a camera control was a mistake in Jet Grind Radio, and it was a mistake here. Sure, I can look where I want if I switch to first-person mode, but Link has a knack for being where I don't want him to be when I zoom in. Considering that the N64 had a d-pad that sat useless for this game, and the emulated Gamecube version simply toggles the map on and off, it's unbelievable that no-one thought to give full camera control to the player.

But what annoys me most is how stubbornly obtuse Ocarina can be. I spent probably an hour wandering the Lost Woods at the start of the game, trying to figure out where the sword was located. The annoying girl with green hair said it was in the forest, after all. Turns out it's in the training area, which is part of the level Kokiri Forest, instead of the Lost Woods, which are apparently not a forest even though they are made up of badly-textured trees. I know, I know, it's my fault for not taking her completely literally, but that's set the tone for my experience so far: blundering along, playing the titular ocarina constantly, until I finally luck into the next step.

No, I haven't even gotten to the Water Temple yet.

December 12, 2006

Filed under: gaming»hardware»control

Rise Up with Fists

The news that the motion-sensitive Wii controller can be used with a Bluetooth-enabled PC is both intriguing and puzzling. It's intriguing because the Wii remote is relatively cheap, considering its capabilities, and probably very durable.

It's puzzling because once I got it hooked up, I have no idea what I'd do with it.

Frankly, the Wii likely makes a poor mouse. We've got the Gyration Air Mouse at work, and we usually end up using it like a regular mouse on the table. On a system where the interface can be designed for shaky hands (i.e. large buttons, forgiving dead zone, circular menus), it's probably much easier to use, but computer interfaces have gradually become more and more precise, with small OS widgets and lots of data onscreen. It also looks to me like it requires the sensor bar to handle yaw measurements and pointing with any degree of accuracy (although let's not be conventional--turning the controller to its NES-style orientation solves that problem, and would certainly be more usable for the Half-life 2 video that's floating around).

So I've been trying to figure out what I would do with something that could measure force in three dimensions, but not position or relative orientation. Knowing my obsessions, I've been trying to relate it to gestural control in music without having to write a really complicated wrapper for it. I'm not coming up with much. Any ideas?

December 3, 2006

Filed under: gaming»software»guitar_hero


The best way to describe Guitar Hero II, if you've played the first game, is to say that everything's better except the songs.

I've beaten the game on Hard, which is right at my sweet spot for Guitar Hero--on Medium I play notes when I'm not supposed to, and Expert is so hardcore that you'd really be better off learning to play the instrument itself. Hard is close enough that I can enjoy the illusion of actually playing along without too much stress. And Harmonix has done a good job of addressing the little frustrations of the first game, with easier hammer-ons and pull-offs (they were originally unrealistically difficult) and a much-needed practice mode. The addition of encores is a cute touch, and the game itself looks better.

So if it weren't for the songlist, the GH2 experience would be a lot higher. But you get the feeling that all the really inspired choices were picked up for the original, and now you're sorting through the leftovers. There are moments of genius, especially "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," "Sweet Child O' Mine," and "Jessica." On the other hand, "Killing in the Name" is a monstrosity, and "Institutionalized" a disaster. It's a much more uneven playlist. The other song criticism is the production--sometimes the other parts of the band are very soft and difficult to hear--although that could be my sub-discount TV at fault.

None of this stops Guitar Hero II from being one of the best games of the year practically by default. You still can't go wrong with this game, especially as party entertainment or for aspiring musicians. I can tell that I'll definitely keep playing through it just for the experience, as I did with its addictive predecessor. If I had to choose this game or the original, it'd be a tough call--beginners might want to start with GH2 for the responsiveness and training options, and graduate to the original when they really want to bring the Rock. And the sooner Harmonix decides to use this improved engine for more selective themed or genre song packs, possibly including songs from the first game, the better.

November 14, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design»learning

Street Sense

The World Bank Institute's Urban and Local Government division is holding a game design competition. Designers are asked to submit proposals for a board or card game that will teach the concepts and benefits of street addressing, and the winner will recieve a $6,000 consultancy contract to fine-tune the game before publication. Runners-up may receive short contracts to discuss their concepts if there are interesting aspects for consideration. If you're interested, you can find the call for proposals here, but hurry: the competition closes at the end of November.

Why street addressing? For Americans this sounds like a silly assignment. My manager stood up at the meeting and explained that it's actually a huge economic drain in lesser-developed countries, including places we typically think of as mostly-developed. For example, she said, when she worked in East Germany during its transition from communism to democracy, the street signs had been removed but new ones hadn't been posted. Finding the firms for which she was consulting on any given day without clear addresses took a great deal of effort, and harmed productivity. Convincing local governments of the benefits of street addressing, as well as the methods for implementation, can be really important.

My thought, and feel free to steal this, is a card game where each player is trying to reach their destination in a fictional city. By playing street sign and address cards, they build a set of directions and move closer. Other players can play obstacle and inefficiency cards that represent a lack of good orientation, sending opponents off course and moving them farther away. The first player to reach their final destination, say by assembling 20 "direction points," wins the game. It's like Magic: the Gathering, but for street addresses. I can just see myself trying to explain that to my colleagues. "Magic: the Gathering? Thomas, you are such a dork."

November 8, 2006

Filed under: gaming»software»guitar_hero

Our Birthdays Are Better Than Your Birthdays: Heart-Shaped Box Edition

Best girlfriend on the planet, yes?

November 5, 2006

Filed under: gaming»software»star_trek_ta

DS Review: Star Trek Tactical Assault

I'm a little saddened to see that (as I write this) Metacritic still only has one review up for Tactical Assault, and it's a low rank by a magazine without an online version. The game itself is quite good, and frankly deserves better.

In terms of space travel and combat, Trek was realistic only in the very broadest sense. For example, the ships depicted in the series were always seen with the same orientation and in the same orbit. Granted, audiences might have been confused by vessels at all angles to each other, or by real inertial behavior. Also, for the most part, strategy was limited to capital ships pounding away at each other, almost like naval vessels. (See also: KHAAAAANN!)

So the decision to limit combat in Tactical Assault to unwieldy starships in a 2D plane may be unrealistic, but it's true to the source material. Set at around the same time frame as the original series movies, the campaign centers on conflict along the Neutral Zone between Klingon, Romulan, and Federation ships. Like the original series, it makes handwaves to diplomacy, but like Kirk it defaults to phaser blasts quickly.

The "tactical" part of the game is basically a tension between six-sided shields and slow-to-charge weapons. Keeping your strongest shields aimed at the enemy while concentrating fire on their weakest areas is the basic strategy here. Even the fastest ships maneuver sluggishly, and they can't fire constantly. The tactical situation is complicated by each weapons' reliability (phasers always hit but have limited range and damage, while torpedoes sometimes miss their targets) and restricted firing arcs. It's not extraordinarily deep, but there is room to learn.

A lot of the fun comes from the use of the DS touchscreen. You can use the d-pad and buttons to run the whole game, but there's also a complete interface in three tabs for defense, navigation, and offense. You can hail and scan everything in sight, although it's clear that those interactions (as well as warp destinations) are heavily scripted. The developers clearly spent a lot of time mimicking the look of Trek technology, even to the point that it's not always practical. For example, shields and weapons only become fully available at red alert, but there's no real incentive (or consequences) for not immediately going to full alert status, although shields must be lowered for transport. Also, during the unlockable Klingon campaign there's an option for the whole HUD to be in Klingon script--again, it's kind of pointless, but it's a fun and immersive touch.

Likewise, the sounds and graphics are largely faithful to the series--they're not stunning even by DS standards, but they're attractive and the frame rate never drops. Ships do offer dynamic damage to specific components, and they can lose engines if they take hits to the warp nacelles. The music direction deserves particular kudos, since it's semi-dynamic in response to the current alert status and mission parameters.

There's a lot of room for improvement on these strengths, however. Tactical Assault suffers from a few bugs, one which locked the DS up during a mission. It also lacks difficulty settings, and hits a real spike halfway through when players are outnumbered by several waves of attacking ships. The multiplayer is also disappointing: there's multi-card play, but no download option and no WiFi. Assuming that they get a chance to make a sequel, it'd be nice to see online play.

November 2, 2006

Filed under: gaming»design

Difficulty Spike

Psychonauts is a pretty funny game. It's one of those games where, if you could cut out all of the game-related bits like jumping and solving simple logic puzzles, it would make a funny cartoon. Sadly, it is not a cartoon. It's a platformer, and those parts of it are not nearly as clever as the writing and voice work. So I've visited GameFAQs at least once, because I'm less interested in proving how well I press buttons and more interested in jokes. I refuse to be ashamed of that.

I'm trying to make a rule for myself: if I'm stuck for more than half an hour on a puzzle, and I don't feel like I'm enjoying the process, I cheat. My time is valuable, and if I drag on for too long, I'll lose interest in the parts of the game that I do enjoy. I know that I'll forgive myself, and if the writing is good, I'll forgive the game for making me forgive myself. Something like that.

What I find, however, that I can't forgive is a game where cheating doesn't help, and where it is literally out to waste my time. I recently started and stopped playing Killer 7, all in the space of a week. It's the game equivalent of a David Lynch movie--lots of bizarre events, no overt explanations, overwhelming levels of gore (albeit in a strange kind of cel-shading that actually highlights the blood). When the game is playing with logic puzzles, it's a lot of fun--the shootout with two undead executives, who can only be defeated by disturbing their immaculate ties, is funny and just right in terms of challenge. But too much of the other puzzles simply revolve around picking up items, collecting random objects, and conducting glorified key hunts.

It's not just ridiculous, in this day and age, that we're still playing games with puzzles that were old when Zork came out. It's a little insulting. Killer 7 is written with a story that is confusing, thought-provoking, and challenging--whether or not it's any good, we can agree on those items. Why burden that story with drudgery? I am sick of having to work to get to the good parts. If the designer isn't interested in being as clever with the non-cutscene parts of the game (Hey, Squaresoft!), I'd rather just watch the movie version.

Which, of course, the makers of Metal Gear Solid and Halo have done or are planning to do. Good for them.

Future - Present - Past