Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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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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A Legend that Lasts

April 15, 2012

It’s funny how the faces of some games shine brighter, even on a tiny little screen.

After what turned out to be the relative disappointment of Ice Climber, I needed something that I knew I would enjoy, something that had never disappointed me no matter how many times I returned to it. Looking at the 8-bit offerings on display, my eyes kept flitting back and forth, back and forth…

ZeldaMetroidZeldaMetroid

Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda might actually be my favorite NES game of all time. Mere mention of the name triggers the “Overworld Theme” in my head, a miniature 8-bit symphony that can last for days. It’s the only game that I’ve played start to finish enough times to legitimately have a case that I’ve memorized it; I could tell you where the blue ring is, where every heart container is, which gravestone the old man with the magical sword is in, and so on. It’s a game I’ve been able to relax and enjoy while whipping through it, taking down dungeons and bosses like it’s my job, planting bombs on inconspicuous walls to find even the most hidden of treasures (though I do still have to pay the “door repair charge” on occasion).

My only real hiccup so far has been the sixth dungeon, in which the ever-despised Blue Wizzrobes took me for a ride after one of those walking gullets called Like-Likes took my fancy shield away.

As of this writing, I am on the 9th dungeon and looking for a Red Ring, a Silver Arrow, and Ganon himself. The 9th dungeon is something like the 1986 version of Ocarina of Time‘s famous and infamous Water Dungeon, a confusing and difficult slog through difficult enemies, passageways that lead to other passageways, and a factory’s worth of doors that require keys. It is a dungeon that reminded me of 8-bit gaming’s utter willingness to trap you in a place where your only means of escape is either suicide or the Reset button.

Yes, I forgot to dig the Master Key out of the eighth dungeon. Of course, I paid dearly for my oversight, reduced to stabbing an old man so his fire would slowly, painfully (shoot fireballs at me and) kill me.

(An aside: the map for the fourth dungeon always reminds me of the Atari 2600's rendition of E.T.. Is it just me?)

Being trapped in The Legend of Zelda is a startling thing, given that it is largely an extremely open and forgiving game, full of fairies and potions and stray hearts all strategically placed in such a way as to keep you going and make sure you can stay alive and explore as much of the world is possible, almost at your leisure. Sure, it’s not really a good idea to go anywhere near the sword-throwing Lynels before you have a Magical Shield or a Blue Ring, but even that’s not impossible if you’re determined enough. That the game would actually physically keep me from progression due to an oversight on my part, well, I hadn’t experienced that since maybe 1987. Given the intricacy of the dungeon design elsewhere, it’s honestly pretty impressive that such situations don’t happen more often.

Pondering the difficulty of this ninth dungeon, it seems hard to imagine that Zelda‘s second quest could offer up a more difficult version. It occurs to me that for all the times I’ve played through the first quest, I have never actually beaten the second quest; as a purist who tries to refuse all outside help in solving a given game, the second quest has always eluded me. I have always given up before conquering it; putting as much work as I did into learning the first quest exhausted my capacity for adventure. I suspect I moved on to something else meaning to cleanse my palette, never coming back as I intended.

This realization reveals a hole in my Legend of Zelda experience, a hole that must quickly be filled.

Onward, then.

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Playing the Meta-Metacritic

May 7, 2011

Disclaimer: About halfway through writing this post I realized that “Joseph Bernstein” was likely the same “Joseph Bernstein” that made his way, for a short time, to the games staff over at PopMatters while I was editor. I feel as though I should note that in the little bit of time that Joseph spent as a writer on the PopMatters Multimedia staff, he was courteous and prompt, and he delivered quality reviews. While I may not agree with all of his written evisceration of GamesRadar (and by extension, the entire mass market games journalism racket), he never wronged me or the site I represented in any way.

"...no metaphor too strained..."

As an idealist, sometimes you have to sit back and remind yourself that it takes a tremendous number of wood planks to build a bridge, and if you spend too much of your time hacking the rot out of one of those planks when you’re halfway across that bridge, the whole thing may well fall down.

I have been reading Joseph Bernstein’s Kill Screen undressing of GamesRadar and its journalistic practices with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance. Sour grapes as journalism has never really appealed to me, though Bernstein’s conversational tone and humor throughout the pieces is actually pretty appealing even if all it amounts to is complaining. The fourth and final piece is the step too far, however — it is the essay that causes the reader to wonder just how much of Bernstein’s work is truly reflective of the ridiculousness of the industry, and how much of it is simply the ego of a writer who sees himself as the dying voice of integrity amidst an otherwise complacent and broken system.

The first three parts of the series featured a lot of people doing their job — granted, the way those jobs get done contribute to the somewhat broken nature of the PR-press relationship. It comes down to the dance between PR people who are out to sell their product, and the games press, who depend on those same PR people for information and pre-release product while simultaneously striving to offer something like “objective” critique when a game is released. This is not a phenomenon unique to the gaming industry (sponsored junkets and pre-release screenings are necessary evils when it comes to covering film, for example), but the fact that gaming is still struggling for something like widespread legitimacy as an art form makes the problems feel more pointed. But really, people are doing their jobs, and it’s up to the consumer to figure out which news and review sources can be trusted, and which ones are in the pockets of PR.

The fourth and final entry in the series, however, is called “I Am the Metacritic”, and as the title implies, it involves game reviews. Tasked to write a game review, the intrepid intern is told that if he feels as though he must score a game in a way that deviates too much from whatever the current Metacritic score is, he will have to do the additional work of providing a formal justification for that score to his editor.

Now, this in itself does seem silly. Theoretically, the review itself would be justification for the score, would it not? To offer a separate justification seems redundant at best, as Bernstein points out.

His solution to the inconvenience, however, is to give scores of 6 out of 10 to games that he finds utterly wretched, simply so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of justifying those scores to his editor.

NOOOOO! NO NO NO! NO!

Story time:

When I, as gaming editor at PopMatters, requested a product for the sake of a review, the PR person in charge of sending out that product often asked that I send a link their way once the review was posted. This is a simple request and an understandable one, but it was a request that always made me nervous, given my natural predilection for avoiding conflict at all costs.

Providing a link was, of course, never a problem when the review was positive. I just hated sending the negative ones, because generally, I had a pretty good relationship with the PR folks. The ones who sent us review copies knew what we did, they knew I didn’t promise anything other than the fact that a few hundred words would be written and published about their game, and that was fine. Sending a link to a negative review, however, opens up an awkward line of communication. The best case is that they don’t send a response, and I go on interacting with them as if I’d never sent it.

In a couple of instances, reps stopped sending us review copies after I sent those links. I have no proof that the lack of material was related to the lousy reviews, but I do have my suspicions. PopMatters is not the first destination people think of when they think of video game coverage, and quite frankly, most of these publishers don’t need us. The PR relationships were tenuous, and changed at a whim, and so losing contact with publishers for months at a time was not uncommon whether it was related to a review or not.

One time, however, PR for a major publisher took a special interest in one of the reviews published on PopMatters. Word of mouth on the game was very good, but for whatever reason, our writer didn’t care for it. We posted the low score, and I reluctantly passed along the link.

And for the first and only time, the recipient of that link took issue.

The resulting back-and-forth brought in discussion of our score in relation to the Metacritic score, criticism of the minutae of the review, and the insinuation that maybe our days of getting review material from that publisher were at an end (note: they weren’t. Despite the immediate reaction, our relationship with that publisher remained fine). PopMatters did not change a word of the review or the score, and I’m a little bit proud of that, honestly.

Here’s my point: I was inconvenienced that day. It was about 20 minutes worth of e-mails, and 20 minutes worth of stressing over exactly how to word them. Not the way I wanted to spend two thirds of an hour, but very little trouble. At most, that’s all the trouble justifying a 2 or a 3 would have been for Bernstein.

"AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, JOSEPH?!"

His reasoning for not wanting to go through the trouble is that he didn’t want to be the person who argued for the sake of giving a low score to a “minor” video game. To his credit, he admits that “Pride is a sin…but it’s my favorite one.” Pride for him is to only fight the battles that he deems worthy of fighting, battles that are apparently related to the relative popularity of whatever he might be covering. I guess, after 1000 words of trying to figure it out, that’s my problem here — I think they all should be worth fighting. Without honesty, a review is worthless. Integrity when it comes to minor games leads to trust when it comes to major ones. While that “6” may not have had much of an impact, maybe a “2” would have had an impact. It can characterize you as either fearless or reckless; either way, the words you assign your name to mean a little more.

If you don’t think those battles are worth fighting, you’re part of the problem.

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Published: The Sourpuss Chronicles

May 18, 2010

Am I kind of a jerk, or just hard to please? Is there a difference?

Friday and Monday saw no less than three of my music reviews show up over at PopMatters, and I wasn’t a huge fan of any of them. On Friday, my review of UNKLE’s latest actually managed the suddenly difficult to obtain front page treatment, and I have to say, I kind of hate it. It’s split pea soup. It’s cake lying dead in spilt milk. The music is bland, and you know, it’s so hard to push a visual art style that features lots of nudity without coming off as juvenile, and I just don’t think they pull it off. The whole thing is just ridiculous. I had high hopes for Dan le Sac and Scroobius Pip based entirely on potential, but their disc didn’t turn out to be all that exciting, either.

Then on Monday my review of dancehall denizen Poirier showed up, and I didn’t like that stuff either. He has one mode — loud and in-your-face — and while there’s a place for that, it starts to feel like a sledgehammer to the skull after half an hour or so.

If it weren’t for the new Yeasayer disc, I’d start wondering if I even liked music anymore. Of course, the Yeasayer disc sounds like it could have come from the ’80s, but we won’t talk about that.

Things are much more normal on the gaming front — of course I loved 3D Dot Game Heroes — it’s Atlus, it’s retro, it’s almost exactly like an old Zelda game. I eat that stuff up. Of course, despite the fact that it’s the thirteenth entry in a major franchise, there’s very little that’s retro about Final Fantasy XIII, and I dug that too. I did writeups of How to Train Your Dragon and the first episode of the new Sam & Max series for the paper, and you know, they’re OK.

So there you go. Here’s hoping I manage to pick up a few CDs that don’t bore the hell out of me the next time I have to write about them.

This post needs some life. Play me off, Ben:

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Shiren the Slightly More Forgiving Wanderer

February 15, 2010

You know, some people really hate Roguelikes. Who knows why — maybe the thought of being subjected to brutal difficulty, combined with the knowledge that if you die you’ll lose all of your items and the experience levels you’ve accumulated, combined with the idea that you simply can’t practice the levels you’re playing because they’re randomly generated, combined with (*GAAAAAASSSSSP*) the idea that your entire raison d’être is to explore a dungeon, pick up items, and find stairs…well, okay, there are lots of reasons to hate roguelikes. Really, a badly-done Roguelike can be one of the worst experiences you can have in gaming, because if the sheer frustration of losing isn’t properly balanced by a well-implemented reward system, it’s basically masochism.

That said, it’s also a genre of gaming that features permanent death as one of its core concepts. There is no sitting down and deciding that “this time, if I die, that’s just gonna be it” — when you die, you lose all your stuff, and you’re kicked back down to being a level 1 weakling. In most cases, you may as well start over.

eeeEEEEeek! Monster room!

This makes playing a Roguelike a very stressful experience. As you crawl through the dungeons and do some basic turn-based combat with some silly little enemies, the idea that you could walk into a trap is always with you. The next level of the dungeon might drop you into a room with five or six enemies, and if you don’t have a spell, or an escape hatch, or some serious weapons with which to deal with such a room, you’re dead. And then that’s it. The farther you get, the more this stress is compounded. If a Roguelike features 30 hours worth of dungeon crawling and baddie beating, the idea that you could perish at any moment becomes an awfully weighty proposition at hour 25. If you die at this point, are you really going to play for 25 more hours just to accomplish what you’ve already done? You almost have to put down the game for a while, erase it from your memory, and allow the traumatic experience of Roguelike death to fade for months, maybe even years at a time before you remember the good times and allow your existence to be eaten alive by one of these sadistic things again.

It’s no wonder this is such a niche genre.

That said, this may be the perfect time for a console Roguelike to be making its way to the market. Shiren the Wanderer was released for the Wii this week, and it comes at a time when people are still enjoying fond memories of the terribly difficult PS3 exclusive Demon’s Souls. This is an RPG that was getting game of the year type buzz from some circles, largely because of the sadistic, gleeful pleasure it took in beating the player down.

That said, I’m oddly disappointed by one of the options given to us by Shiren the Wanderer: that of an “easy mode”. Specifically, this is a mode that removes the perma-death element of the game, allowing the player to keep all of the items and levels that had been accumulated to that point.

eeeeEEEEeeek! Head with legs!

On some level, I’m entirely aware that being nonplussed by a game mode that I don’t have to play makes me kind of a selfish bastard. After all, what right do I have to be nonplussed in any way about a game mode I don’t have to use? The thing is, it’s there. I know it’s there, I’ll always know it’s there, and every time I die while I’m playing the game on “normal” (that is, the punishing you-better-not-freaking-die mode), I’m going to feel like a little bit more of an idiot for not playing it on “easy” when I start it up again. None of this is even to mention that even in “normal” mode, the punishment for having the nerve to die is less severe — you may lose all of your items and weapons, but you get to keep the experience levels you’ve accumulated. A little bit of good fortune and a lot of luck later, you can find some decent equipment in the less punishing dungeons and be right back to business.

Has Chunsoft done Roguelike fans a disservice by making Shiren a little bit more like the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games? It seems like a huge gamble to leverage the existing audience for a genre in service of attracting a new one; the new faces will see it as curiosity, while the genre’s fanatics will see it as betrayal. Whether this results in a net gain or net loss in audience remains to be seen, but by removing some of the most important elements of Roguelike play, Chunsoft has made Shiren the Wanderer more like a traditional turn-based RPG. With so many graphics-intensive, cinematic, and full-featured (not to mention less repetitious) RPGs out there, it’s suddenly hard to see a case for Shiren.

Of course, I’m only four hours in…and I haven’t died yet. More to come, undoubtedly.

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Well, Hello There.

December 17, 2009

What do you know, the blog’s back, just in time for the end of the decade.  You know what that means…lots of reflections and recaps, before I get back into the business of current events.  Seems as good a way to start as any.