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Not So Unlimited After All

August 28, 2013

Unlimited Lives is dead. It never quite figured out what it wanted to be. On to the next thing, then.

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Deleted Scenes: Let it Be

March 27, 2013

Deleted Scenes is going to be a collecion of pieces I wrote for other outlets, things that for one reason or another didn’t get published. They could be full 2,000-word articles, they could be 50-word blurbs. If I write it, it doesn’t get posted, and I think it’s good enough to publish, this is where it’ll end up.

Let it Be, 7" SingleOver the last two weeks, the good people over at popblerd.com have been posting their list of the best albums of the ’70s. It’s an interesting and fairly eclectic list, with most of the albums you’d expect and a few you might not; it’s worth checking out, even if music from the time before you were born isn’t your thing.

I wrote a few blurbs for the list, including one for Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and one for Zeppelin’s III. I also wrote one for an album that ended up in the top 10: The Beatles’ Let it Be, one of my favorite Beatles albums, not to mention the only chance for a proper Beatles album to be listed in a list of “albums of the ’70s”. My blurb wasn’t the one to get published, so here they are: a couple of thoughts on The Beatles’ final album:

* * *

The Beatles – Let it Be (1970)

It’s no surprise, I’m sure, to see The Beatles show up on any list that they happen to be eligible for, and Let it Be was late for the ’60s by about five months, so here it is. Rarely does Let it Be make any noise as one of the best Beatles albums, because as Beatles albums go, it is uneven and unambitious. It was recorded before Abbey Road, but disagreements in its production style and the songs that were to be included kept it off of shelves until two years after it was recorded. Even as recently as ten years ago, a new version of the album was released — Let it Be…Naked — that purported to be closer to the “original version” of Let it Be.

Nobody ever follows the advice of the album’s title. Everyone seems to wish that it could be more, that it could be better than it is, largely thanks to the pedestal that everyone puts The Beatles on. Every album must be perfect, it must define its era, and if it doesn’t, the problem must be circumstance rather than the music itself.

The constant tinkering is unfortunate, because taken as it is, Let it Be is still a great album. “Across the Universe” and “Let it Be” are two of the band’s most identifiable musical statements, and for good reason; they are immediately catchy and beautifully layered pieces of music. “Get Back” is one of the best “rock ‘n roll Paul” songs The Beatles ever did, and George Harrison’s aggressively cynical “I Me Mine” is a display of his simplistic songwriting style at its best.

Sure, there are a couple of bombs on Let it Be; “Two of Us” is a pleasant throwback at best — a lousy way to open the album — and “The Long and Winding Road” is a dense, saccharine mess no matter which version you’re listening to. Still, the bright lights outshine the missteps, and while Let it Be may never be more than the sum of its parts, some of those parts are sufficiently brilliant to stand on their own.

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Finishing Metroid II: Replay Incentives

March 13, 2013

This is my last Metroid II post, I promise. It’s spoileriffic, so most of it’s hidden behind a jump. Sorry.

Metroid II Ship

Even in 1991, game developers wanted their games to be lasting experiences, things that their target audience would be playing ten, 20, even 40 hours after they were done. I finished Metroid II in a little over seven hours. I’m satisfied — seven hours is no small amount of time to be entertained by a black and gray Game Boy experience — but what if I wanted to get more out of it? What incentive do I have beyond the personal satisfaction of pure mastery of the game to try to get through it again?

Well, by this point, the answer to that question was simple, because it was answered by the original Metroid: offer an incentive for mastery by changing the ending.

Read the rest of this entry »

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The Sunny Side of SimCity

March 9, 2013

Everybody's Happy!I feel terrible.

No, not for something I did, at least not directly. I feel terrible for the people who created SimCity, the people who brought it to life, the people who tested it and programmed it and decided what colors it should have and what Simlish sounds like. I feel terrible for the programmers who came up with a way for thousands of little Sims to influence the direction of a city, to appear to each think for themselves and live unique little lives as we create the infrastructure of their city — and in some ways, their world — around them.

So much of this game is a feat of design and programming. It is so sad to see it reduced to a server complaint and a one-star Amazon review.

Here is what I want to say to the rest of them, to the devs who had nothing to do with the debacle that is now transpiring:

This game, this toy, this thing you have created, it is brilliant.

SimCity is a beautiful game, with a color scheme that’s like every color in nature except brighter. These are the colors we wish we saw in a growing suburb or a bustling metropolis, colors not yet obscured by the browns and grays that come with disrepair, with salted highways, with the pollution that hangs in the air of the modern city. Hell, even the pollution of SimCity is something to behold, a gently wafting cirrus cloud of smog that hangs in the air just long enough to tell you that you have a problem.

This is a game that actually makes the player believe that every action has an effect on each of the individual Sims walking or driving or lounging around the city. You don’t just see stats like crimes and fires, you are actually alerted to individual ones. You watch your police car patrol chase criminals around the city. You see flatbeds with construction materials moving their way to build sites. You watch ambulances transport the sick to the hospital, and you watch the sick try to lurch their own way to the hospital under a constantly, pitifully endless fountain of what I presume to be vomit. The new SimCity makes you care for your city’s citizens in a way that no previous SimCity has.

This is a game that promotes collaboration, even if that collaboration is between you and yourself. Your city is not an entity unto itself. In order to truly succeed, it must ship materials to, or borrow emergency vehicles from, or encourage tourism among other cities in a predetermined “region”. You can create cities whose sole purpose is to exist as a supply house for a city you’d really like to see succeed, or you can create cities in direct opposition to each other — say, a green self-sustaining environmentalist nirvana next to a high-tech smog-covered industrial manufacturing center — just to see what happens, to see if they can coexist.

There are so many little touches that make this game such a charming experience, things that people just won’t see because they’re so angry right now. Someday, when the servers return, when cheetah speed is again attainable, when there’s less vitriol clogging the promotional space, people will return. They’ll see what you’ve done here. And one by one, they’ll applaud your efforts.

Thank you for sharing your vision with us. I hope it’s not too long before you get to share that vision with everyone who wants to experience it.

* * *

The picture I’ve painted here is a rosy one. SimCity is not a perfect game, and I’ll be going through my issues with the gameplay side of it and, to the extent that I can, the server side of it in my review. Still, my personal experience with the servers has been mostly positive, and I want to give credit where it’s due, from someone who has only played it in the time when it’s been open to the general public.

SimCity is a fun, absorbing experience. It’s too bad so much positive has to be outweighed by such an invasive, inexcusable, but still singular negative.

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Metroid II: Setting the Mood

March 7, 2013
...I can see you...

…I can see you…

It is the rare video game that can effectively build a sense of suspense that is legitimately frightening for the player. Driven by the need to progress, obstacles increase in difficulty, maybe, but they don’t often increase the wariness one feels in approaching them. The God of War series, for example, kills the trepidation you might feel at facing an enemy several hundred times bigger than your avatar by making such a battle happen early on; when Kratos has taken down a titan, there is removed any reason to feel afraid of anything. In fact, any battle in which you are not battling something huge and fierce and angry feels like a bit of a letdown.

Metroid II actually builds the sort of tension that can be so intimidating as to force the player to put down the machine it’s being played on. As the ever-helpful Metroid Wiki notes, there are more “boss battles” in Metroid II than in any other Metroid game, at a staggering 40 encounters with metroids at various stages of their life cycle.

Now, whether you actually consider those battles “boss” battles or not — for the most part, these “boss battles” are quick little missile-firing sessions, battles of attrition where you fire as many projectiles as possible without losing too much energy — their setup is very skillfully executed. Almost every metroid you need to fight is preceded by the sight of a broken metroid “shell”, letting the player know that a battle awaits in the next room or so.

This is a nice touch, a “be ready” signpost that more often than not had me grinding my way through minor enemies for energy and missile refills before I went after whatever waited for me. The sense of dread is particularly pronounced as the metroids get bigger, as the Giger-esque Omegas and the smaller but quicker and more tenacious Zetas become more and more common. Once you’re startled once by a metroid uncovered by shooting away sand, you realize that they could be hiding pretty much anywhere.

All of that is well and good, but nothing compares to the sequence that awaits the player at the end of the game.

(This gets into spoilery territory, so I’m going to go ahead and put it after the jump. Yes, I still worry about spoiling 20-year-old Game Boy games. Hey, nobody spoiled it for me, why should I for them?

…ahem. Jump. Clickyclick.)

Read the rest of this entry »

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Metroid II and the Danger of Subversion

March 5, 2013

It will surprise nobody who knows me that I got lost, and often, throughout my time with Metroid II: Return of Samus. It’s not that it’s a huge game, really, it’s just that it’s in black and white, it’s big enough, and it seems to take pride in re-using some environments for the sake of making the player lose any sense of directional bearing.

Also, I have no sense of direction. I spent a lot of time — a lot of time — taking the controls while my brother barked directional instructions at me when we were kids. Spatial reasoning has never come easily to me; I can read a map just fine, but put me in the middle of a city and tell me to find my way out of it, and I might remain trapped forever.

Of course, I’m too stubborn to actually draw maps as I go…but I digress.

About halfway through Metroid II, I got lost. Hopelessly lost. I had done what I needed to do to that point, I had fought and won against a handful of “gamma metroids”, and I’d picked up a mess of missiles and a couple of energy tanks along the way. I followed the implied suggestion of the game to clear an area of metroids, let the energy-draining lava that blocks off other areas recede, and then move on to the next area. It seemed like a nice way to let the game dictate where I should be at any given point, something the game uses to keep the world from getting too big at any given point. But then I got lost, running around in circles, bombing every wall, checking each area once, twice, three times for secret passages.

Finding nothing, my resolve fell.

The Metroid Life Cycle

As it turns out, a combination of a few energy tanks and the half-damage ability of the varia suit allows for the ability to go through the lava-filled passages into segments of the game that theoretically shouldn’t be open yet.

Really, this is a strength of the game, given that the ability to go into these areas opens up the game in a way that will appeal to those who don’t care for forced linearity. You can seek out and find a few of the overpowered omega metroids if you like, you can get a look at terrains that you’ve never seen, you can practice fighting enemies that you’d only seen in the instruction book to that point, and you can save your game in areas that you’re not supposed to be. You can explore the entire world of Metroid II, aside from perhaps the final boss, once you can withstand enough punishment to speed your way through the lava.

The problem with subverting the intention of the lava is that the entire point of the game is to eradicate all of the metroids, not to get to some predetermined destination. If you go exploring in places you shouldn’t be, you are necessarily increasing the scope of your search for those metroids, and when you get to the point where, say, you have one left, you have the entire world of the game to explore, rather than one comparatively smaller section of it.

That said, it’s difficult to resist the pull of new things, especially when you’re not entirely sure whether the lava is truly telling you not to move on. The last retro game I spent this amount of time with was The Legend of Zelda, a game that delights in slowly breaking down the rule set it establishes early on, forcing the player to consider possibilities about the world that would have seemed impossible in the early going (walking through walls, whistle-triggered staircases, and so on, particularly in the game’s second adventure). Unable to find the metroid that would trigger another lava-clearing earthquake, the question lingered: was I supposed to be navigating my way through the lava to progress? What if my self-imposed limitation, my understanding of the implications of the game’s mechanics thus far, were hindering my ability to conquer it?

Don't do it!

Don’t do it!

Until I did finally figure out what I was missing, a simple strategy allowed for the exploration I needed: go where I like, but don’t save until I have an answer to my question. Metroid II‘s usage of save points allowed for the approach, and my own fear of trapping myself somewhere I shouldn’t be was enough to get me to restrain myself from using them — no matter how off-track I got, I knew that the simple act of video game suicide would return me to familiar territory. Eventually, I did find the metroids I’d been missing, and I didn’t have to go through the lava to get to them.

And thank god, because I might have been at this game for months (or until I dropped it for a prettier, newer game).

The ability to subvert a game’s implicit rule set is one of the things that makes even playing a video game a creative experience. The way you play is unique to you. Whether it appeals to you, however, may depend on how willing you are to accept the consequences of that subversion. Subverting a game’s rules terrifies me, at least until I’m familiar enough with it to turn it into my own personal sandbox; I’d rather see what it has to offer on something as close as possible to its own terms before I start forcing it to conform to mine. Now that I’ve beaten Metroid II, I’m much more willing to go in and try to break it.

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Tools and Toys: Origin of a Gamer (#BoRT)

November 7, 2012

Prologue: I promise I’m going to write some blog posts that aren’t #BoRT entries someday. I’m moving across states this week, nine months after last time I did it. Time is…well, it’s difficult to come by.

The theme of this month’s Blogs of the Round Table is “Origins”. Per #BoRT curator Alan Williamson: “What are your earliest memories of gaming? How do you think your childhood (or childish adulthood) experiences of gaming have influenced your life, if at all? Are there any game origin stories that reflect your own?”

Here goes nothing:

* * *

I didn’t “get” my first console. It was just, you know, there. I don’t even remember how I came to start playing it, just that I played it. I played Pong on it with a paddle, I played Combat on it with a joystick. It was an ugly thing, a giant brown box with conspicuous ports, buttons, and switches. It was my older brothers’ machine, and for some reason, when they moved out, they left it with my folks.

It was an Atari 2600. It didn’t change me or anything, I just can’t imagine my childhood without it.

I remember playing Pac-Man on that machine. I loved Pac-Man on that machine. I’m fully aware, 30 years later, that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man is largely derided as perhaps the worst version of a classic game, but it didn’t matter. It’s amazing what can come off as brilliant when you don’t know that anything better exists. All I knew at that point was that it worked part of my brain that no other entertainment could. It also offered the first hints of my obsessive-compulsive tendencies when it came to video games; even when I was five years old, my Pac-Man strategy was to get all the dots first, saving all the power pellets for the end.

I remember playing Football on that machine. Honestly, I didn’t know what the hell was going on.

I remember playing E.T. on that machine. I may have played more E.T. than any other Atari game save for Pitfall II, certainly more than any other game that I “inherited” from my brothers. It was a fascinating and alien thing. It was aggressively strange, punishing, and difficult, and I wanted so badly to understand it. I got pretty good at it, if I’m being honest.

I remember playing Yars’ Revenge, Venture, and Super Breakout. I remember playing Pitfall, and Kaboom, and River Raid. I remember playing some odd Sesame Street thing that involved an exclusive number-pad peripheral thing. And I remember playing them over, and over, and over again. Somehow, my parents let me stick with these games, they let me treat them like any other toy, and not like the devil in the TV.

Heck, I should probably thank them for that.

The first machine I was alive for when it was introduced into the house was an IBM PCJr. As if to try and convince me that this machine was a necessary component of our household, my dad showed me Jumpman on the first day that computer was in the house.

Do you remember Jumpman? Think a sub-8-bit version of N+ and you’re probably not too far off.

My god. I just remembered that computer was in the kitchen. THE KITCHEN. Why was it in the kitchen?

The actual cover art for the IBM PCJr version of King’s Quest.

As much as the 2600 showed me what video games could be and do, that PCJr showed me what they were made of. I bought books of BASIC programs that I one-fingered into files, LOADed, and RUNned. Every so often, a game I bought in the store would error out, and I’d get a glimpse of the source code, a stray GOSUB or a division by zero error. It was proof that these things were written, line by line, by actual honest to goodness humans. I admired these humans, even at six years old. I wanted to meet them, and I wanted to be them. I wanted to know what it was like to make something as open-ended and gleefully difficult as King’s Quest (a PCJr exclusive when it was first released!) and as utterly mysterious and far-reaching as In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.

Where the 2600 represented the future of toys, the PCJr represented endless possibility, a world in which creation and consumption could coexist and intermingle, a world in which I could, when I learned enough, change my games to suit my needs and interests.

Could I have articulated all that then? Hell no. Still, I think it was there in an abstract sense. Just as a child can sense tension even when all the grownups in the room are still plastering smiles on their faces, a child also knows when the future is knocking on the door.

My brothers, and then my father, brought the future into our house. I didn’t even have to ask. It’s no wonder I can’t just “play” games. I have to understand them, too.

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