Saturday, December 17, 2016

Retro Thoughts - Star Control

Retro-Thoughts, in which I try out one of the many games I missed out on during my youngers years and give you my thoughts on it. This time it is... 

Star Control!

What did I know about Star Control before trying it? Absolutely nothing. Well except that it's categorized as an "adventure" game and takes place in space. Which I guess I could've guessed from the title really... I always check a bit of gameplay and screenshots before purchasing a game, sometimes even a metascore if it's a newer game. I got Star Control on and they've bundled it with Star Control 2. Now, after having tried the first game, I realize that it is not entirely clear whether the screens on are from the first or the second game, but I guess they are rather the latter. Graphically they're very similar but I suspect that gameplay-wise they're not.

Just looking at Star Control I wasn't entirely sure if it was my cup of tea. I liked what I was reading about it, if you've read any amount of posts from me before you might've seen me mentioning Escape Velocity, a "space trading and combat simulator" game as wikipedia puts it. I love Escape Velocity and thought Star Control sounded a lot like it. Looking at it however it was verging on the style retro-graphics that I can handle with a bit of overenthusiastic coloration and everything being just too close up or too pixelated to really make out what I am looking at. But as I very rarely let graphics alone get in the way of me trying a game out that otherwise sounds like fun, I decided to give Star Control a spin.

So I started it up and immediately had no idea what I needed to do. With older games the first thing to figure out is always what keys to use, because it's rarely the good old "WASD"-configuration. I say "good old" but back in the day it seems like each game used their own setup of keys and holy macaronies am I happy that is no longer the case. I did manage to get my ship... err wait a sec, ships? Am I playing two ships at once here? I don't get it... well anyway, I did manage to get them both to fly around and shoot stuff, but had no idea what to do beyond that. Was I supposed to kill the other ship? Is Star Control a multiplayer game?! Why had no one told me!

Pew pew! Ok... now what?
That seems to be the case so after aimlessly flying and shooting around for a bit I decided to try out one of the other game options. As I assumed "practice" was the same as "melee" I looked at the last one. Oh wait a minute, no need to worry - "Full Game" is right here, surely this is where the actual game is located. I start that up and... I have even less of a clue of what is going on than before. At least in the melee and practice option I thought I knew what to do, although it seemed rather pointless for me as a single player. But now I am looking at a screen with a lot of dots floating back and forth and I guess one of those ships is supposed to be me? I've got a couple of menu options like "move" and "mine" and "fortify" so that sounds promising at least, that sounds like I've indeed come to the adventure or possibly strategical part of things.

At first I try to actually give things some thought. I try to figure out what could be a good move? Bearing in mind I have literally no clue what the objective is or barely even what I am looking at, my trying to think things through doesn't actually produce much in terms of results. I move my ship around a bit, fortify some things and mine some things. Then I move my ship back. Then up again. More mining and fortifying. Sometimes I get a message about something, but it doesn't seem to make any difference because I keep moving my ship around the dots without anything else happening. Whatever is supposed to happen isn't and I really don't understand what is going on. Unless this is the game? Maybe this is what is supposed to happen and I am winning! But I can't tell.

I sigh... Star Control seems to be one of those retro games that people have a very fond memory of, and I don't doubt that it is a good game. If you can get to it. Star Control is a bit blocked off by distance, and by that I mean distance in time. Being released in 1990, for a computer game especially, Star Control is pretty old and from a time when conventions like explaining the game in-game weren't in place yet. A game like Star Control feels like you pretty much have to read through the manual to get a hang of and probably also be in the mind-set of really old-school computer games, they were just crafted differently back then - for better or worse. For me and in this particular case, the bar was too difficult to get over and I quietly uninstalled it again after about an hour of finnicking around with it.

Star Control left me feeling left-out, too young to understand a game too shaped by its time. Maybe I needed to give it more time, but if one hour of poking around didn't make me one bit smarter I think I am a hopeless cause. Star Control and me didn't click, and in a time when there are so many other games wanting my attention, it's very difficult to sit around for too long with one that gives me a very cold shoulder. It made me no less interested in trying the sequel however, rather the opposite! Star Control 2 also boasts a rather awesome soundtrack so I am definitely looking forward to trying that out.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

VGM Podcasts Review

Video game music has always had a big part in my life, at least since I started gaming. More recently it's pretty much overshadowed every other kind of music and become near the only kind of music I listen to. To be fair, in recent years gaming music has become so diverse that you can get your fill no matter what kind of genre you prefer, but mine happens to still mainly be chiptune-style. As mentioned a couple of posts ago, this also eventually led me into looking for podcasts centred around VGM to keep me company during my bike rides to and from work. And I've actually managed to find quite a few, of varying quality that I thought I would write a little more about. Firstly, it's important to note that what I am after when listening to a VGM podcast is mainly the music. Some podcasts delve a bit deeper into the technical aspects of the making and creating of VGM and while I do find those parts interesting as well, I prefer the ones that just play as many tracks as possible, with a bit of commenting. My evaluation of the podcasts I listen to will of course be biased by my preferences in this regard.

But where is the harp?

Battle Bards by Syp, Steph and Syl
This is probably my favorite or at least one of my favorite VGM podcasts. Eventhough they have niched into MMO-music specifically, which initially had me thinking that I'd get bored with the podcast eventually, they manage to make so much from their topics. The dynamic between the three hosts is by far the best out of the podcasts I listen to - they have completely different tastes and are not afraid to tell eachother. This leads to interesting discussions about the quality of the different tunes and I especially enjoy hearing the different perspectives they often have on the very same tune. This podcast is also unique among the ones I listen to in that it intersperses the music with the talking, rather than listening to a tune (or two) and then talking about it which is the standard procedure, and it really works! Sound levels can be off sometimes, where the music is too loud to hear what they are saying, but that is only occasionally and definitely not enough to remove any of the fun from listening to this gang talking and bickering about MMO VGM. Highly recommended!

Forever Sound Version by Michael
This podcast has only just gotten started and it's off to a very good start. Forever Sound Version is a bit unusual as he does most of the episodes on his own (although he is not the only one as we will see). He does a great job at it however - the focus is on music and the talking only adds to the tunes by keeping it relevant and interesting. Because he (mostly) does the episodes alone, he stays on point which can be very nice when you've listened to a couple of podcasts in a row where the hosts stray off the topics. For the first couple of episodes I've listened to he has managed to strike a nice balance between technical, informative and personal when talking about the tunes and my only gripe is that I feel he sometimes brushes through some topics a bit quick, I wouldn't mind longer episodes!

That's better.

Rhythm N Pixels by Rob and Pernell
Another great podcast with a duo of guys who just want to share some good tunes, making the podcast very laid-back and unpretentious. They choose an often whacky topic that they base their tunes around, which allows for a nice mixture of music. This podcast is more personal and goofy and less technical and I especially enjoy it for the often great variety in music within each episode. It's fun to hear the hosts thoughts around the different topics which can be as diverse as "Fire Levels", "Map Themes" and "All the Fours" and they always find a good balance between the personal anecdotes and music, giving each tune a personal touch without becoming repetative. They also do focus episodes where they listen to music from a specific composer or game series. Again, this podcast is very snack-sized which does go well with it's overall style, but I wouldn't mind them being longer! On the other hand it comes out more often than most other VGM podcasts.

Pixeltunes Radio by Mike and Ed
If you want a VGM podcast with a lot of chatting and topic wandering, this is the podcast for you! I'm not saying that sarcastically, it really comes down to matter of taste. This podcast definitely has a lot of charm, and one of the best thing about it is that there will be a lot of tunes per episode. They also do their own video game inspired skits which I find is a great idea and I am amazed at all the ideas they come up with for these skits. Unfortunately the podcast suffers from a bit of what I'd like to call "bromancing", meaning most of the discussions around the tunes can be wrapped up into "it's a great tune, dude". It's understandable to choose only music you like for your VGM podcast, but if you're a duo of hosts and both like exactly the same kind of music, it doesn't allow for much fun conversation about it and sort of removes the need for being two hosts in the first place. This is also one of the goofier podcasts on my list, and they wander off a bit too much for my taste sometimes. This podcast is also more of a video game podcast that is heavy on the music, because they often get very in-depth describing the game they're covering. They can go into full detail about everything from the first screen, through stage by stage until the end scene. This means it can get a bit far inbetween the songs with information I don't feel I need, but if you like a podcast where you get to know every detail about a game, this is great for you!

Even better!

Pixelated Audio by Bryan and James
This podcast is extremely similar to Pixeltunes Radio and therefor has roughly the same strengths and weaknesses. It does get a bit more technical and it can be quite fun to hear different channels from a certain tune and the hosts explaining what they do and how they affect the song. They also manage to get some really good guests on this show, everything from Chris Huelsbeck to Peter McConnell (the guy who did the OST for Grim Fandango). They often choose rather obscure games to cover, which can be nice if you want to find some new music to listen to and not just something that covers the same old classics (this is also true for Pixeltunes Radio). A bit too much focus on stuff that isn't VGM and with the same issues of bromance, it's an overall good podcast with just a bit much talking. Just as with Pixeltunes Radio this is a "pick the raisins" kind of show for me.

Sound of Play by the Cane & Rinse hosts
Sound of Play is a spin-off of sorts from the Cane & Rinse podcast. Sound of Play has full focus on VGM and although there occassionally are more than one host for the show they often limit their talking to personal experiences with the games and some thoughts about the tunes. Very straightforward and mellow, it is great if you just want to listen to a lot of music with as little talking as possible. I don't know if it is intentional, but Sound of Play definitely play a lot more instrumental and modern VGM tunes than chiptunes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you're after 8-bit tunes you're probably better off listening to one of the other podcasts on the list.

Retro Reprise by Syp
Also a spin-off of sorts, but from Battle Bards, one of the hosts has taken it upon himself to branch out from the MMO-niche and listen to some retro tunes in this podcast. The formula is otherwise similar to Battle Bards in that the music is interspersed with the talking and Syp also does a good job at keeping the talking interesting and relevant to the music, as with the Forever Sound Version podcast. So far Retro Reprise has covered some real classics, and I think it is great. Classics are classics for a reason and great tunes can be heard over and over. There are so many things called Retro Reprise on the internet, so this can best be found under the Battle Bards homepage.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Were Right! Thoughts on the Switch

Almost exactly 8 months ago I wrote a post on some of the rumours surrounding the console now known as the Nintendo Switch. Based on the rumours I was pretty excited - it seemed Nintendo would go back to cartridges and do a crossover console basically turning their handheld and stationary into one. I loved both of these concepts, here we are more than half a year later and it turns out these rumours are pretty much true. As far as I know the cartridges have not been confirmed (although I think you can see it in the reveal trailer), but it seems pretty clear Nintendo are going to go for something like it.

So what can I say? I am not any less intrigued today than I was then, in fact I am thrilled so much of what I hoped for actually turned out to be true (as it seems). I absolutely love the entire idea and I am happy that Nintendo seem to have gone and done another... well Nintendo. Few people think so much out of the box like they do and rarely does it end up being a complete failure.

It looks better than anything I could've imagined (yes, even the dog head) and there are few things about it I don't have high hopes for. There are of course some important issues that need to work like battery Life - the portable screen (and all the other peripherals) needs to have a decent battery life, nothing substantially less than the 3DS is boasting now, if Nintendo wants this to work as part of their handheld line as well. I'm sure they don't need reminding that one thing the comparatively weak Game Boy had over its competitors was battery life (and game library).

I also find it a tad optimistic of them to show people split screening the portable screen. Eventhough it doesn't state the exact size of the screen I am pretty sure it is way too tiny to be split up and still give satisfying game play for everyone involved (especially in a moving car). I did grow up split screening a lot of games on a 16 inch TV and never recall it being an issue, but this screen is most likely smaller and people are just used to bigger screens nowadays. I know people around me who complain when they have split 30 inch TVs in a well lit, non-moving, living room. I love the idea of wirelessly hooking up several of the portable screens for some on the go multiplayer though, and since I know how effortlessly Nintendo have made it work in the more recent Pokémon instalments I have high hopes this will work fine for the Switch.

I have no idea what I am doing

Speaking of Switch, I like the name. Some people (like my bf) who don't like change and have gotten used to the NX moniker seem a bit reluctant to call it anything else. But "the Switch", as it no doubt will be known as, is short and neat and says everything you need to know about it (unlike a name like Playstation 4, which I can only assume it has because Sony are so damn proud of coming up with Playstation in the first place. By the way, I wonder if Gamecube is a play on that? Although, Xbox One is probably worse, at least ps4 is consistent and clear). I find it actually sounds "hip" without trying too hard, unlike NX would've. It also avoids the confusion the WiiU caused, having some people wonder if it was another console at all or just an addon to the Wii. I guess that time Nintendo tried to ride off the wave of fortune the Wii had spawned, but it clearly had the opposite effect.

This time around Nintendo seem to be promising a much bigger third-party support, which really was one of the biggest issues for the WiiU which is otherwise a cool console. None of the games shown in the trailer are anything that will make me throw money on the screen though. I am not a huge Zelda fan (and they cleverly avoid to show any interesting gameplay in the video), I couldn't care less for Skyrim (which hasn't been confirmed as a port or anything else anyway). I don't do sports games and I probably will never play Splatoon (although it seems like a decent game). I suck at any and every Mario game I've played and that only really leaves Mario Kart which ok... I always enjoy to play Mario Kart.

Dude... that things is going to fall on to the floor and break like that.

And that is pretty much it. Nintendo don't have to show me another Smash Bros, Mario Kart or Mario Party because (unlike the Metroid series) I know they will be on there, and they are what I am after.

I love that it is basically a little Swiss Army Knife-console, allowing you to turn it into what you need it to be for the moment. It looks like a lot of things for my 3 year old to accidentally (or deliberately) break, but just as with everything else precious to me it's up to me to make sure that doesn't happen.

I can't say for certain I'm not going to miss my Game Boy though, assuming the Switch means Nintendo are moving away from a pure handheld console. For instance, will I want to bring the portable screen with me on a trip somewhere? How do I charge it then? Do I have to bring the entire console? I dislike any handheld that doesn't have a flip-screen as the possibility of scratching the screen always gets me proper stressed out. Getting some sort of protective gear for the Switch seems like a necessity, but it isn't for my 3DS. To me this looks more like a portable, rather than a handheld, if you get the distinction. Basically I am worried that in trying to fuse these two worlds together, Nintendo are going to end up just getting both of them done half-assed. But, it is Nintendo we are talking about here. If anyone can pull it off, they can.

If the Switch is anywhere near as smooth to use as it seems like in the trailer (which I doubt it is, those people don't even have to turn their TVs on to play - or do they just leave them on all day?) I think it is going to be one hell of a cool console and I am very hyped about it coming out as soon as early next year. I really hope my economy (and the launch line-up) is good enough for me to buy one.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Character Creation and Identification

Now since I am playing a new game every now and then, I've come across a feature in gaming that I realize the developers have put a whole lot of effort into, and that I really couldn't care less about. I am, of course, talking about character creation, and specifically the looks of your character (as opposed to the stats of your character, which I care quite a lot about). As I started playing Dragon Age: Origins recently and I yet again only clicked "random" and "done" on my character, I took some time to think about it. Do the character looks matter to me at all? I tried thinking back to different games I've played where character creation was a thing, and the only time I could remember ever caring about it was in World of Warcraft. But then I wasn't so sure anymore. Was it really that simple for me? Is there no part of the character that is important to me, and in that case what and why?

Thinking back to early 90's and even before then, I hardly consider the characters even relatable. I don't think of Mario or Sonic as characters as much as a tool or prop I am using to get through the stage. Maybe this is the reason that many characters from this era have some really far-out character designs - like Plok, Chuck D Head, Dynamite Headdy and every animal in the animal kingdom. The games were then often designed to fit those characters. And eventhough character creation in terms of stats had been around for a long time, in terms of looks has only been more common fairly recently.

I think he/she is supposed to be laundry.

It's almost always been limited to role-playing games, and it makes sense. RPG's are the games where the creators want you be yourself playing someone else, hence the term "role-playing". In this way character creation is about identification, either about identifying with the character you're playing because they look like you or because they look like someone you want to be within that game. Sometimes these decisions have actual practical outcomes within the game and I realized that for me at least, that was by far the most important factor for deciding what kind of character I wanted to play.

Back when I started gaming, being able to identify with the character I was playing meant having to accept I was playing as someone who looked nothing like me. As a white female there were few games that allowed me to play as a character where I could pretend she was me (Perfect Dark and Lara Croft comes to mind, none of which I've actually played) and I just never did. Even removing all the games where anyone would have trouble identifying themselves with the main character (like the above-mentioned games) there were plenty of role-playing games (and still are) that don't offer any choice. I got so used to it that I stopped thinking about it and thought that is not even an effect I am after when I play video games, the same way I don't look for that effect when reading a book. I can get immersed in the story, sure - so much that it really deeply resonates with me. But I really didn't need to feel like I was the main character for this to happen. At least not until recently.

Definitely recommend Divine Divinity.

But let's linger in the 90's for a bit longer, even early 00's. The vast majority of games I played had a male, specifically a white male, as the main protagonist. I don't think it ever bothered me. Because the story was told to fit that character - think Final Fantasy, Deus Ex or Thief. I got so used to this that even at first, when I suddenly came upon games that had a choice, I chose to play as a male as long as the gender had no further impact on the game. When I played Divine Divinity I played as a male. When I played Diablo 2 I chose solely based on class and didn't care about gender. Same thing in Geneforge. Being used to only think of the character as a tool it took me a while to identify with it and I still don't really care when I play older role-playing games.

But then came the character-interaction heavy games, like the before mentioned Dragon Age, or games like Mass Effect and in a similar-but-different-sense any MMO really. Either I have to interact with other players or with other characters in a character-developing-social-kind of way I realized that I wanted to play as a female. Suddenly, when characters were interacting about anything from their favorite wine to whether to get all smoochy, I felt like doing this in a gender I didn't identify with would feel odd somehow. I know I can do it, and will have to do it in games like The Witcher for instance, but given the choice I definitely prefer doing it as a female.

Morrigan gets on my tits though, and not in the good way.

I had this thought initially in WoW as well. All my first characters were female, I guess so that players around me would now that I was also female. Funnily enough, eventhough anyone can choose any gender for their characters, I found that female characters were treated differently from male ones. After I had played the game for a while I lost all interest in representing my gender in my character and went with whichever had the best fighting and casting animations (male tauren is so much better than female tauren for instance and female orc wins over male orc any day). But in games that are dialogue-heavy this still matters to me. I have no idea if it would even if I knew the dialogue and options would be exactly the same between the different genders however.

One could ask the question why? Why do I need to interact "as a female" in a game just because I happen to be one? Of course it has to do with relatability, but since most female dialogue and interaction is also written by men (just my guess), I am in fact ending up playing a male interpretation of a female anyway. I don't want to make this a big discussion about gender differences, but in games they generally are very few and only stretch so far as to whom you can date (some games have even removed those restrictions, thankfully enough). So why do I feel slightly more comfortable doing these social interactions looking like a girl? Especially since it doesn't seem to bother me in other situations? Is it just so I can come on to the male characters if I want to (and I rarely want to anyway)?  I honestly have no good answer to these questions but I think they are interesting because it really comes down to how we enjoy games. It's just something about what feels right.

It's impossible to convey in a picture how awful the 3rd person view is.

Looks still holds no importance to me however. When it comes to looks I seem to be able to identify with anyone. In fact I played as a black character in Fallout 3 and was thrilled to see that my "father" had my looks. At first it confused me because the only father-character I had seen in trailers and the like was a white male so I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Bethesda had taken this part into consideration when giving you free hand to create your character's looks. In hindsight it is obviously perfectly logical.

So I thought maybe the looks of a character doesn't bother me at all because I know that no matter what I make my character look like, the game will treat me the same. In fact many games, Fallout 3 being among them, you are given the option to put a lot of time and effort on your character, only to find you won't even see them that often (unless you play in 3rd-person view, and in Fallout 3 you really don't want to). I spoke to a guy who was playing Destiny, if I remember correctly, and he told me he had spent up towards and hour on his character, only to find it looked exactly the same as everyone else once the armor came on. And generally, the armor stays on.

I know people to whom character creation matter a whole lot and who spent a lot of time to make their character look just right.  I wonder how they feel about playing games where there is no choice as to what your character is going to be. I guess I have a more pragmatic look on it where I only care as far as it will affect my gameplay (this is why I loved playing as Oddjob in Golden Eye). I'd like to think that gender is only important when it affects gameplay. But then I remember that I always choose to play as a female in Pokémon (ever since the option was introduced at least) and in that game the gender truly does not matter. And then I think that maybe I thought I didn't care about having to play a guy because I had to stop caring, because if it bothered me too much there wouldn't really be many games out there for me to get enjoyment from. I truly loved Deus Ex and Thief, but I can't help thinking that I might've enjoyed them a little bit more if I got the option to play as a female.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Newbie-Friendly Games

This week my son has been a bit sick - right between being too sick to go out and play and not sick enough to just try to sleep it all away. Short story, we've spent a couple of days just playing indoors and after a while the idea to play some video games popped up. I let him choose freely and he tried some Mega Man and Decap Attack among other things. He didn't get passed the first enemy in Mega Man but got a bit further in Decap Attack, almost to the end of the first stage. Watching him struggle with different elements of these different  games, as I have seen him do with games like Yoshi's Story as well, it got me thinking to what makes a game more or less difficult, or more or less newbie-welcoming for lack of a better term.

I am mainly talking about more classic "character-controlling"-games where you move through a level trying to avoid obstacles and enemies, I guess you can call it platforming games. I am curious on a personal level because I consider myself quite shite at platforming games and only end up having fun with the more lenient ones. I know nowadays there are games that are actually aimed at "newbies" or people with very limited skills, time and/or experience with gaming. Nowadays there are countless games in which it is, for example, impossible to have your character die (I think for instance the LEGO games belong to this group). And with the surge of mobile-games things have gone to an even more accessible level. But what was it like 20 years ago?

Nevermind that it's a dead guy throwing his own head...

I am part of a video game group on Facebook and I decided to ask the members the question about what classic games they thought would be accessible to a child nowadays. The response was pretty big and I got suggestions with everything from Turtles in Time to Toejam & Earl to Rocket Knight Adventures. I hadn't really clarified the age of the child, and there is obviously a big difference between someone who is 4 and someone who is 9 (which might explain why someone suggested a fairly difficult game like RKA). But I think a newbie is a newbie and will struggle with similar things regardless of age. We're talking about someone who has the interest, but maybe lacks the motor control, cognitive awareness and experience with general gaming rules.

Now, my son is barely 3 so he's obviously on the most basic level of gaming. Watching him play is fascinating, because he learns quickly, but what lacks him is the ability to do things simultaneously (mostly because his small hands can't grab the controllers properly) and the cognitive awareness to react in time. He also just doesn't know some of the rules of gaming that I at least take for granted - lava and pitfalls will kill you for instance. In fact, just that the fact of dying is something to be avoided is something he hasn't grasped or at least doesn't care for, yet. He will gladly fall down a hole a hundred times (and why not, there's no law you can only play games a certain way!). He also lacks the ability to distinguish what on the screen is bad for him and what isn't (admittedly, so do I in some games) and has to trial and error his way forward. But I imagine this is what an adult with no prior knowledge of video gaming would struggle with as well, at least to some extent. When he plays I try to avoid telling him what he should do, but only tell him what he can do, and let him experiment on his own. It can be frustrating to watch sometimes since I am primed to tackle the game a certain way and he definitely goes outside of those perimeters, but as long as he is having fun it's all good.

Since I didn't really grow up with video games myself I have little personal experience of what it was like trying to grasp the games of 20-30 years ago. The few games I did play I was truly very bad at and never got far, but since I didn't own them myself I have no idea if I would've kept at it and eventually gotten better. That is what happened eventually, but I was in my early teens at that point already. A lot of people in the FB-group suggested that back then there wasn't much option, you had to keep whacking your head against the brick wall or not play at all. Of course, this will slowly allow you to get better at all of the above things - rules, reaction time, awareness, simultaneous button mashing and so on. But I also believe some games were so relentless that you hardly got anywhere before you were stuck and that didn't allow you to learn much at all. The bf told me he could never get passed the first stage of Revenge of Shinobi until he was an adult, so I guess that game only offered a very limited learning curve. So back to my original question then - what games were the best at easing you into and allowing you to learn these things 20-30 years ago?

I guess he lacked these skills. Noob.

After watching the son struggle with different games I got a general idea of what was "required" of a game to be more newbie-welcoming. For instance, some games have enemies pretty much straight off the bat that are also fairly difficult to hit. Mega Man is a perfect example. You move three steps and you immediately get a flying enemy that swoops onto you (assuming you choose Cutmans level which is the preselect).

That segways straight into the next difficultly - the amount of different movements you need to master early on to be able to move on. Is it enough to just run and occassionally jump, or do you need to be able to run and attack at the same time? Do you need to jump over pitfalls? Climb ladders? Jump between narrow platforms? Jump between narrow platforms while avoiding enemies? Cutmans level is another good example here, because not only do you have a swooping enemy attacking almost immediately, but you also need to jump or climb to move further into the level.

No one likes swoopers.

And a lot of this also boils down to how much reaction time you are allowed. That first enemy in Mega Man wouldn't be so difficult if it moved really slowly (and if it didn't swoop! I mean wth).

So let's look at some of the suggestions that were given to me and see how their respective first stages (or early parts) stack up on my newly minted newbie-friendliness scale from 1-10, where 10 is "No Sweat" and 1 is "No Chance";

  • Sonic - My issue with Sonic is the control, it's sluggish and unpredictable. I know Sonic fans think it's awesomely rad, but for someone trying to learn controls for the first time this is just an unecessary hurdle to get over. Otherwise a fairly friendly game. The fact that you can simply jump on enemies to kill them is a very nice touch. 7/10
  • Toejam & Earl - I haven't played this much myself, because frankly I think it's quite boring. But nevertheless, the first couple of stages of T&E are very newbie-friendly as they basically only require you to walk around and look for stuff. The game progressively introduces the player to new elements and no doubt becomes pretty tricky by the end, but until then I think it looks like a great game to get started with - if you have fun with it, unlike me. 8/10
  • Spyro - I'm not sure how much you'll be able to accomplish if you don't grasp the goal of the game, but it does allow you to run around fairly unhindered and just have fun and explore and there is nothing bad about that. 7/10
  • Yoshi's Island - I consider Yoshi's Story to be one of the most newbie-friendly games out there, it's predecessor Yoshi's Island is a whole nother story however. The first stage has some fairly difficult platforming to get passed and I know it only gets harsher from there. 3/10
  • Ecco the Dolphin - Yet again a game where the goal isn't too obvious (it's not just "get from left to right") and eventhough you can just swim around for a bit there isn't much to do unless you get good at avoiding enemies and obstacles. 4/10
  • Donkey Kong Country - The first stage isn't too fast paced at first and doesn't have too many pitfalls, it does however have many and differing enemies. Then it gets pretty difficult half way through where you have to climb ropes and get thrown across the screen. And we all know DKC overall is nothing for the faint of platform-hearted... 3/10 
In the end, Yoshi's Story still stands as the by far most newbie-friendly platforming game I have come across from pre-2000 but my quest continues (with my son as a guinea pig, as long as he's up to it). Any suggestions?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Majora's Mask and the Nervous Crush

My relationship with the Zelda-series is a respectful yet distant one. Although I can acknowledge it for the achievement it is, it's just never been for me. The most fun I've had was with the Minish Cap and I've played far from every entry in the series. I definitely prefer the 2D ones over the 3D ones but to be fair I haven't played enough of them to make a good judgement. Ocarina of Time is still one of the few video games I've owned and sold (although I regret it now), after my dear brother deleted my clear save. Not that I had beaten the game or anything, but I had bought it from a friend who had. I had spent some time running around the world, checking it out but after that save was gone I felt no need to play the game from start. Would you believe me if I told you I found it too creepy?

I'm still interested in the Zelda-series however and don't mind keeping up to date on information or reading/listening to the odd piece about it. So it came that I listened to a podcast about Majora's Mask by Cane & Rinse, a podcast I recommend checking out if you're into more in-depth discussions about video games.

The heart shape is a trap.

Just as with most Zelda games, I've never really played Majora's Mask myself. I've got the Zelda-collection on the Gamecube and gave it a spin a couple of years ago but just couldn't get into it. Just as with Ocarina of Time it's not because it's not a good game, but because it doesn't feel like I belong there. I feel out of place. It's a difficult feeling to explain and I've tried to formulate it to myself many times. Since I've never heard anyone mention feelings similar to that (not that I've asked though), I've always sort of thought I was just being weird about it or that it was actually feelings of inadequate skill that I tried labelling something else. It's far from just Zelda games that give me this feeling either, Omikron: The Nomad Soul is another good example of a game I have no reason to dislike, yet have so much trouble to get into because I simply feel like I'm not supposed to be there.

I don't get this feeling from anything else either. There's never been a movie I really enjoyed but didn't want to watch through, or a book I thought was great but didn't want to finish. Maybe it's because I invest more of myself into a game than those things. With a book or movie, I am an observer. With a game I am participating, I am the one getting affected by what happens, through my proxy on screen. Eventhough I love books and movies they can never become as immersive as a really good game to me. But I wondered if I was the only one who thought that way about some games.

Yes, David Bowie is in the game.

Then I listened to that C&R podcast on Majora's Mask and realized they were talking about exactly those feelings. In it, spoiler alert here by the way if you actually want to go and listen to it yourself first, they conclude that eventhough Majora's Mask is a very good game in almost every respect, it's just not very welcoming. Most agreed that the game was original and were glad it existed, yet none of them (if I remember correctly) said they wanted to ever return to it. Even if they didn't word it the same way I had to myself, I instantly recognized what they were talking about. But what does that even mean? And how can a game be good, yet not be able to make you want to play it? Isn't it by definition a bad game then?

As I said I've been trying to explain to myself how this can be happening, but I am struggling to find the right words for it. Looking again at a game like Omikron, that I've at least spent more time with than Majora's Mask, I have no real reason to dislike it. The controls, albeit taking some getting used to, are fine. The story is interesting, the gameplay is cool. And it's far from a scary game - yet it is definitely unsettling in its style. The world is so different, the characters in it so odd, that I feel out of place and frankly, stupid, whenever I play it. And it is exactly that feeling I had when playing Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Even if I may be perfectly capable to play the game, and I know I am, it instills me with a feeling of inadequacy, like there is always something going on behind my back that I am not quite getting. Like I am the one being played and not the one in control.

It takes me right back to when I was completely new at gaming and every game I booted up made me feel insecure and out of place. I didn't know the controls, I didn't know the gameplay. It took me a lot of time and courage before I even dared to try out entire genres, like shooters, because I simply thought I didn't have it in me to play those kind of games (bullshit, of course). Now, except horror games, there is no genre I avoid simply because I think I am incapable of learning them. I know I am bad at certain games, but I'll still play them and I will still have fun with them if they're well done. Yet these special style of games like Majora's Mask and Omikron, eventhough I have fun with them once I get around to playing them and think they are good games, they make me feel like a newbie again. The best thing I can compare it to is having a crush on someone but you end up avoiding them because they just make you so nervous.

Yep, nightmare fuel.

Maybe that is the root of the problem. These games make me feel vulnerable, not because I am afraid I am going to die or fail but because I can't work out what the game wants me to feel and think. The game feels smarter than I am and like it is always one step ahead of me. I never feel like I am in control and as such it is like playing something that is always on the verge of becoming a nightmare even if I intellectually can tell myself it isn't (to be fair, a lot of people think Majora's Mask is nightmare fuel). This drains me of so much energy when I play them that even when I do get around to starting them up, I can never stick around for long before I am mentally exhausted. It is really a very difficult thing to wrap my head around and I end up wishing I could just think of them as "just another game", but somehow instead I get too invested.

The worst thing is that I actually like these games, I do find them fun. Omikron has been such an interesting experience so far and it should be right up my alley, yet I have to force myself to play it because it stresses me out to play it for some reason. Maybe I just need to gather up the courage to ask it out on a proper date.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Field Report #23 - Dragons and Dinosaurs

I was hoping to be able to do a review of Grandia today, but the game turns out to be slightly longer than I anticipated. Not that that is a bad thing, I am already feeling a bit sad that I'll have to part with the characters before long, after having spent almost 40 hours with the game so far. So instead here is a little bit of this and that I've been gaming lately;

Endless Sky
I got the recommendation to check out Endless Sky after having ranted about how much I like Escape velocity yet another time. And it is definitely very much like Escape Velocity! In fact I'd say it is almost an identical copy in style, albeit it seems the story is somewhat different. It's difficult for me to say since I haven't really encountered much story in Endless Sky yet, but it presents itself in the same manner that it does in Escape Velocity. Endless Sky, much like Escape Velocity, is a pretty slow-start game. You don't get much of a ship to work with early on, but there are fairly easy ways to make money. It does require a lot of "mindless" flying back and forth to do escort and shipping missions however, but this is just the way it was in Escape Velocity. I haven't really got the hang of how to battle in Endless Sky yet, and I didn't do much of that in Escape Velocity either, but in both those games it is clear that if you want to enter the fringe areas of space you will need to be able to stand your ground in combat. At the moment I am still mostly doing delivery service in the centre, and safe part, of the galaxy (ie close to the Earth Solar system) and waiting for a story arc to present itself, but overall it is proving to be much of the same simple fun Escape Velocity was.

This picture does not capture the danger of these zones.

Dragon Age Origins
After a rough start where I didn't have much fun with the game things are starting to look a bit better. I've got a squad I am fairly happy with but I still feel a bit lost in the bigness of it all. Dragon Age Origins suffers from the same problem a lot of more-or-less open world games do - they give you a main story arc to follow, often a very urgent one, yet also gives you free hands to ignore it. What's the problem, you might think? Well, it makes the main story arc less believable and immersive if I can just choose to ignore the imminent threat of death and destruction at any time. In DAO I've got characters that remind me of my main task at hand, and that get annoyed when I choose to dilly-dally. Eventhough I like the touch, their nagging personality actually grates on me and to have someone sigh everytime I want to save a child from trolls got on my nerves. So goodbye Morrigan. So far it's definitely not a bad game and I find combat quite enjoyable most of the time (targeting with aoe's is so broken though), but I have yet to feel immersed in the world or stories and the whole Fade business is verging on being more obnoxious than fun or interesting.

He might sound like an Antonio Banderas-wannabe, but he's my favorite character so far.

Yoshi's Story
Not that I have been playing it much, but the son has made great progress! I am so proud. And a bit surprised seeing as he really has not played the game much. Probably not even ten times in his whole life. I am still far from promoting gaming to him since it really is more hassle than it is worth, as far as I am concerned. Personally I think he can have just as fun with a train set or something, and then there is a lot less worry for me that he will break something. He did have a bunch of friends over the other day and at one point they wanted to play some video games. They knocked my n64 twice in the floor before I said it's time to go play something else. Lesson learned, consoles with cables should be on floor level.

Yoshi's Story is great though because it really has a very gentle learning curve. It allows my son to take his time and just jump and walk around for a bit if that is what he wants to do. There is no time limit to worry about and the first stage has very simple enemies. But he's already learned to jump obstacles, eat enemies and fruits, shoot down fruits and get eggs. It's eerie really.

No Man's Sky
I am actually still having fun with NMS. I say that like it's some sort of miracle, but it's gotten so much scorn people seem to treat it that way. It really requires that you make your own thing of it and try to forget the hype. Just like I said in my Initials Thoughts on it, there is a fairly entertaining game in there, it's just not what you might expect.

World of Warcraft: Legion
I am pretty sure I am going to buy this sooner or later, but I really haven't decided when. I knew that I wasn't going to get in from the start because I really don't have the time to stand around with a hundred other players trying to click the same quest giver and getting kicked out of the server over and over. I've done that, no more, thanks. But maybe in a month or so, we'll see.

And that's about it for now, but I'd love to hear what you all are gaming at the moment. I'm guessing it's mostly Legion though!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Replay = Love?

I read a tweet yesterday that paraphrasingly said that you make time for the things that matter in your life. I consequently interpreted it as meaning the things you don't choose to spend time on are things you don't care so much about. The original tweet was in regards to people. As someone who is notoriously bad at keeping in contact I found it difficult to agree with it however. I rarely call anyone, but there are very many people I am very fond of. I don't call my parents often, but I keep regular contact with them through other means, like Messenger. But someone like my brother, who I care very deeply for and always enjoy being around, I haven't called for years. I don't even think I called him for his last birthday. If that makes me sound like a terrible person, you might be half-right. I've had friends question my lack of interest, only to have me try to persuade them of my sincere enjoyment of their presence in my life. I know people who call to other people in their lives every day. I'm not saying there is anything wrong or weird about that, but it's just not for me. This is something I've had to become better at (and I have definitely improved!) because the feeling that you're not important to someone who never calls for you is a pretty logical one. Anecdotally it reminds me of my ex who always had a hard time remembering peoples names and then trying to convince said people that he still cared for them - he couldn't even remember the names of his grandparents.

To me it's meant a bit of work with myself. To the people around me who have expressed their desire for me to show more active interest, I've obviously tried to do so. For the people who seem fine with me just checking in every now and then and maybe never (like my dear brother), I've kept things that way. It also made me realize I have the same relationship with things.

Not a picture of my brother

I guess it'd be difficult to try to convince someone of your love for a game (or game series) that you have never even played yourself. Yet that is me and my relationship with the Resident Evil series. There are plenty of games out there that I respect for the quality gaming that they are without actually wanting to or having played much of it myself - games like the Metroid-series or Zelda-series. I've tried a couple of them but the gameplay is overall not something I find very enjoyable. This is not the case with Resident Evil however. I really like everything about those games (up until Code Veronica) yet I have never played any of them.

It's simply always been a series of games I've had someone play for me. I keep telling myself it's because they stress me out and I find them too scary. This is probably the closest I am ever going to get to an explanation as to why I haven't played them. Yet I have played horror games, like System Shock 2 and Dead Space (and Alone in the Dark is on my to-play-list). And I have been in very stressful gaming situations, like raid healing in endgame World of Warcraft. So maybe it's the combination then, or just exactly what Resident Evil makes me feel. That could possibly also explain why I am not such a big fan of RE 4 as everyone else seems to be - it might just be more fun to play than to watch. The only RE game I have tried so far is RE 5 co-op, and I definitely had some fun with that but then it is getting more towards an action game than a horror game at that point.

Resident Evil is a bit of an odd one out however, since most games I really cherish I have played. Surprisingly many of them I also hold in very high regard without having played them for years. Games like Lemmings, Yoshi's Story, Final Fantasy VII or Azure Dreams - all games I would recommend to anyone in a heartbeat but haven't touched for ages. It's not even a question of replayability, I know I would have fun with all four of these. But I have played them and so it's more interesting to try something new than retrace, even if I don't know how much fun the new will be.

In fact there are very few games at all I can say to have replayed (or revisited if you like). FFVII and FFX I've played twice, I've watched the first four (five if you count Zero) Resident Evil being played through multiple times if that counts but otherwise I'd be hard pressed to mention more, even if I'd include games I replayed for a bit but not all the way through. I replayed Yoshi's Story a lot back when that was my first and only game, but since then I've only played the occasional stage with my kid. And can you call it replaying if you've never even beat the game in the first place? I spent a lot of time on games like Snake Rattle n Roll or any given Mario game, but I've never beaten them.

I know plenty of people who do the opposite, in fact my SO is just that kind of person. He can rewatch the same series and movies over and over and replay the same games over and over. Of course I rewatch and replay things as well, but it is rare and far inbetween. Does it mean I love them less and enjoy them less? Maybe! Obviously it is very difficult to measure subjective enjoyment but it doesn't sound too farfetched that someone who chooses to play a game enjoys it more than someone who doesn't.

Or maybe it is not that simple. Maybe I just fill up on my enjoyment meter faster or don't empty it as fast as other people. I'm venturing in to ramble-ground here, but why not - that is what a Sunday evening blogpost is for. For instance I know I seem to have a surprisingly good episodic memory, at least when compared to people around me. I can remember, in quite vivid detail, a whole lot of things that has happened to me all the way from around 5 years old to today (as memory is a very fickle thing I couldn't say much as to the truthfulness of said memories, but they're there anyway). Maybe this also helps me store more memories of a game I've played or movie I've watched and so I feel less inclined to re-do it again? So then it is not about how much you enjoy a game but whether you need or want to replay it to experience that enjoyment again.

I think what I am trying to get at is that eventhough there are many games I really love, and even love to play, I rarely get around to actually playing them. I almost always choose a new, unknown experience over an old, known one. I don't want to think that means I love them any less, but I can't exclude that possibility. When my SO boots up Sonic the Hedgehog for the umpteenth time and I see that smile spread over his face eventhough he's spent so much time with it he knows the game by heart - I can envy that sometimes. In his case it is probably also a nostalgic kick, but not even games that hold great nostalgic value to me seem to give me that same feeling.

I didn't grow up playing games or watching films either, so that might be another factor. I didn't have a TV in my own room until I was 19 and could buy one for my own money. I didn't have a computer until I was around 16 and I owned my first console at 13. That might explain the lack of a real nostalgic kick from most things movie and game related, but I don't think it can explain why I so rarely choose to replay games.

In the end I guess it doesn't matter. I'm not suffering from it and I am sure no one else will either. But it is interesting to ponder your own relationship with games sometimes, the ones you call special and how much time of day you actually end up giving them. I wonder how common it is for people to pick up their old consoles and boot up an oldie but goldie rather than play another match of Overwatch? It makes me think that maybe it is time for me to give good old Settlers 2 a spin again, I haven't played it for far too long.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

First Thoughts on No Man's Sky

No Man's Sky is apparently another good example of how terrible massive hype can be for your product. It's true that few things live up to hype that big (personally I don't think Star Wars VII did either) but I think it was difficult for NMS not to be as hyped as it was. How can you avoid to get peoples mind boggling when you tell them that you've got 18 quintillion procedurally generated planets to play around with in a game that is bigger than the actual universe? Can you really be at fault then when people don't at the same time realize that procedurally generated sort of is the opposite of carefully crafted which in turn might mean not-so-well-thought-out? Spore will forever be the prime example of what happens when someone tries to cram everything into a game without making sure that anything of it is actually fun. We already know minimalistic can be fun - just look at Tetris. Maximalistic seems to be harder to grasp.

Fortunately personally, I wasn't too hyped about NMS. Excited and interested for sure, but I had a feeling already pretty early on that if a truckload of procedurally generated content was all they were going to boast about, it wasn't going to hold up for very long (this doesn't mean I am cleverer than everyone else, just more pessimistic). But like I said, I was interested nonetheless. Partially for the technical feat of it and partially because it still was a game about exploring space. Since Escape Velocity is one of my all-time favorite games and this sounded like a much, much larger 3d version of it, NMS was already early on on my radar to keep track off (I have since also checked out the actual spiritual successor to Escape Velocity, Endless Sky, but that is matters for another post, possibly).

Before I decided to buy it I actually watched a couple of reviews of it. I often do this if I am about to spend more-than-usual amounts of money on a game I am not entirely sure about yet (Pokemon games always have a free pass). The reviewers pretty much confirmed what I thought would be the problem with the game and since my interest to experience it myself was still there I decided to buy it, eventhough reception was somewhat mild. About a week ago I bought it, second hand actually, and have since spent a couple of hours with it. And so far it is pretty much what I expected from it.

A lot of other reviewers have already summed it up pretty well - It's difficult to put your finger on NMS. Is it fun or not? The problem isn't the hype as such - I think it deserves to be hyped for the technical feat that it is. Why everyone seemed to think this would automatically also make NMS awesomely fun to play is beyond me. I think the problem with NMS boils down to the fact that you can be so easily overwhelmed by it. It is huger than huge and no person will ever even come close to discovering all the planets there is. Everyone ever playing probably won't come close to it. One might wonder why you should even bother making a game that big, or maybe why you as a player should even bother going around doing discoveries at all? In almost every other game any area the player can go to has been designed to further the experience of the game - you can't think of NMS that way.

If we get down to the facts of it, gameplay wise I think it has received more scorn than it deserves (mind you I have only tried the ps4 version, I've heard the PC version had some troubles of its own). I heard a lot of complaints about the inventory management and the UI in general, personally I don't think it's that big of a problem. Yes you are required to be pretty spartan in your collecting, in a game that is all about gathering. It seems like an odd design choice and I can agree it would've been nice to at least be able to store items somewhere else than in your very meager exosuit and spaceship storage (although upgradeable). Everything you want and need to craft requires different components and you only really have space to focus on one of them at the time, especially counting in the fact that you need to run around with materials to power up your suit and mining tool as well.

I don't find this a huge problem however, it just means you need to do some careful planning. Make sure you know what you need and go out to collect only those things. So what if you come across a very rare item/material along the way, or something you know you need for some other item? Leave it, mentally map it or just be ok with the fact that you can't pick up everything you see. NMS is a lot about "be ok with it". And not in a "the game is badly designed so deal with it or leave" kind of way but "this is not the game you were looking for, but there is actually an entertaining game here so take it for what it is or leave" kind of way.

One reviewer was annoyed by the fact that every planet seemed littered with artifacts, items and structures left around by other alien creatures. It made it feel like every planet had already been discovered, so what was the point of even going there? This is a simple case where a choice of fun game design trumped over realistic game design (like how even the most realistic of survival games never require you to take a dump). Personally I can't see any fun whatsoever in landing on a planet that is literally just material to collect. Part of what makes a planet interesting is to see if there is intelligent life and if they left something behind. My critique would rather be that it's all very samey, and I will get back to this. So I agree that it gets repetitive, but I disagre that there shouldn't be anything. That would in the end become even more repetitive.

Graphically I also think it has its ups and downs. On the one hand the orange glow of space really bothers me. Is it to make the planets easier to see? Is it just in my part of space? Am I in some sort of orange nebula? I wanted the darkness of space and the orange color just makes it look like I am flying around in carrot soup. I hate it, in fact.

Space apparently also available in pee yellow

On the other hand I've walked for minutes just taking in the scenery. On the first planet I landed on, a comparatively nice planet it turns out, I found a cave system close to my space ship where I just wandered around looking at things, pretending I was actually there. It was very serene, beautiful and definitely fun. Right then and there I did feel like a true explorer, transcending even the feeling I had when first running around in Skyrim, following map markers and being curious about what was around each corner. Here I had an entire planet for myself (basically), massive cave systems, gorges, cliffs, trees, beautiful flowers and weird looking creatures to explore. At that moment I even felt like I didn't need to leave that planet at all. That was a rather important feeling, it turns out.

And it is a truly awesome feeling when you look up at the sky, see a planet or moon far away in the distance, hop into your spaceship, lift off and fly there. Imagine if you could just decide from one moment to the next that you wanted to go to the Moon (and the Moon wasn't just covered in sand, but also other stuff), and then go there. As you slowly rise up from the planet you're leaving, look down and see it all spread out under you - it slowly dawns on your that you just left a planet, it's actually the size of a planet! And you've been there, on a tiny part of it and left a tiny mark on it. There is sooo much more of that planet to explore, so why are you already moving on?

This is a fundamental question in NMS that you should think very carefully about. Unless your first planet turns out to be a pain in the ass, survival-wise, consider spending a lot more time there than the game prompts you to. Getting your spaceship fly-worthy takes less than an hour, unless you wander off like me. But is the grass really greener on the other side? I haven't played NMS long enough myself to verify this, but I have feeling that the more planets you visit, the less fun they become. The more will the procedurally generated fact of the world grate on you and the more anonymous they will become. Oh look another dog-dinosaur looking animal. Another cave system, another set of green flowers. Another block that gives me iron, just like the other block on that other planet that gave me iron. It's comes down to whether you prefer a life of one-night-stands or a few lovers that mattered. Maybe you shouldn't be so quick to move on and take some time to savour where you are.

NMS in a close update?

NMS is a very lonely game. You'll meet other aliens, which don't feel real at all and that you don't care anything about so it can be very daunting that you are basically all alone in that massive game. I think the game would've truly profited from being a multiplayer game, because eventhough Hello Games has said gamers can interact with eachother, this doesn't seem to be true. If it should be something like Eve Online or maybe like the multiplayer in Dark Souls, I don't know. But I would've loved some sort of hub where I could get some interaction from people, yet retain the possibility to fly off to a lonely part of space whenever I felt like it. NMS needs a civilized part, a part of the Universe where there are cities (or at least a city) and not just rocks and grass. This, I think, could make the game truly amazing.

I haven't visited overly many planets myself so far, maybe five. And eventhough they visually look fairly different they play out almost identically. Some might be more difficult to play on because of environmental issues, but there are almost the exact same things to do. The soup might be mixed differently but it has the same ingredients. Because of this you are just as likely to find something exciting around the corner as on a planet 100 lightyears away, for better or worse. If you jump from planet to planet hoping the game will offer more, that is when you will be sorely disappointed. If you go on a treck to find the fun the first couple of planets couldn't fulfill, you'll have a bad time. The game offers you basically everything it has straight from the get-go and I don't think that has to be a bad thing, it's just unconventional and takes some getting used to. Like mentioned, it might make you wonder why even bother with 18 quintillion planets in that case, but they're just there. They don't make the game better or worse, there's just more of it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond *Review* Spoilers!

When people ask me what TV-series I like I often start by saying "Star Trek". Sometimes I get a bit more precise and say that I like all of them a lot, but Voyager is probably my favorite because that is the first one I got really in to. Overall however I would have a hard time comparing them, eventhough I have been known to do so in the past, as I feel they are all very well done, worthwhile and bring their own ideas to the Star Trek Universe.

Of course I am also a big fan of most of the Star Trek movies. Yet again I would have a hard time picking a favorite - I am one of the few people who thinks the first Star Trek movie is brilliant (when it was revealed that V'Ger was actually the Voyager space probe I was completely amazed, it gave me a complete new sense of what kind of story telling sci-fi was capable of), I belong to one of many who thinks Star Trek: First Contact is one of the best sci-fi movies ever and I almost cried of joy (because the scene was so awesome, not because it wasn't sad as hell) when I watched the opening scenes of JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot (coincidentally all these three are the first of their lines). I was less enthusiastic about Star Trek Nemesis and to be honest I don't consider Wrath of Khan all that entertaining - there, I said it. It was a while ago since I watched Star Trek 3-6 so I get them all a bit confused and jumbled in my head, but my overall memory is still one of getting the Star Trek feeling from them. So they're not all great movies, but at least you've got the characters and the Star Trek core still feels present in all of them. Until now.

This week I went and saw Star Trek: Beyond and I don't want to say it's a bad movie, although I think deep down that is really what I think about it, but what is almost worse than that - it didn't really feel like a Star Trek movie. It completely failed to give me any Star Trek feeling, and I was almost angry when I left the cinema. A lot about the Star Trek universe can be silly and goofy (more about that shortly) but this movie just ended up feeling plain stupid to me.

It didn't start out well with the opening scene. As I watched it unfold I remember my thoughts being "oh sweet mercy, I hope this isn't setting the mood for the rest of the movie because I don't know what I even just witnessed". That scene was just ridiculous from beginning to end. I realize, and even thought about it as I saw it, that they tried to envoke the idea of the comic Star Trek, the Star Trek that gave us The Trouble With Tribbles (one of the best original ST episodes) but it fell so flat it was like when someone tries to be funny and you just end up feeling ashamed for them. That scene definitely had me worried for the rest of the movie.

If you haven't seen the Tribbles, you've missed out.

And unfortunately it just never got any better. Scene after scene I just ended up sitting there thinking "that's not a thing!" or "are they doing this, for real?" in exactly that ashamed-for-them kind of feeling. We're talking sci-fi here! I'm pretty damn lenient about what I allow in terms of imagination, but that doesn't mean it's ok to make scenes that just end up being completely laughable. Let me mention a couple of scenes that really grated on me and that felt like they had given them absolutely no time for thought, they were just shoved in for effect (if you think I have misinterpreted any of these scenes, feel free to explain them to me!);

  • When they jump from the ship, they make it look like they slide down and jump forward to escape the ship tumbling over. How is that even remotely possible considering the size of the Enterprise? Even if they were jumping in any direction they would've been smashed by the impact of being so close to something so damn huge. THEY ARE SLIDING DOWN A STARSHIP DAMN IT! IT'S HUGE! You just can't outjump that.
  • Not a scene per se, but the villain... where do I even get started. When his motivation for all his evilness was revealed at the end I just sighed, it was so silly. I'm not saying people haven't done worse things for less, but in the movie world that makes for a very boring villain. And it was. And he says things like "I've spent lifetimes looking for this thing" whereas Bones (or someone) says that the crew from USS Franklin must be 100 years by now. Hardly what I'd call "lifetimes" and besides, did he do all the searching from that planet in the  nebula? Was he hoping the doomsday weapon would just wander into his hands by waiting around? The fact that it actually does just proves the lazy writing.
  • Speaking of the doomsday weapon... they make it out to be so horrible, but using it seems way too difficult for it to be truly dangerous. Why does he have to spread it in the airways? Is it so that it acts faster? Because what would happen if it acts too slow? It just disappears? Or was Krall worried they'd find a way to counteract the effect? In either case, the weapon never ends up being anywhere near menacing enough to warrant all the kerfuffle and dread they're trying to make us feel about it.
  • In the first half of the movie they make it seem like the nebula is some ways off Yorktown (the name of which made me realize how horribly America-centric Star Trek can be, considering it's supposed to take place in a vast Universe full of species), yet when Krall launches his attack it looks like the nebula is just around the corner. If it is, then how is it possible that it has not been charted yet? Don't give me bull about how difficult it is to traverse, I find it unbelievable that they would choose to build such an important structure so close to a nebula that is completely uncharted.
  • As we're talking about bad decisions, why would you choose to send your best starship and crew into said nebula just because some alien you've apparently never even encountered before (assuming since they don't have their language on record) says they're in trouble in there? If that is how you go about things then you will not be a strong force to reckon with for very long - just look at what happens, which is exactly my point.
  • The exploding swarm, just... wtf. I'll admit the scene was somewhat cool, for about three seconds. But then I just couldn't understand why the heck they were exploding? I can understand that they'd be rendered useless, but does that make them explode? If they had explained it by saying something along the lines of "if they're rendered useless/cut off from the command centre they will self-destruct" then maybe (like they do in the anime Heavy Object), but we get nothing like that. To me this is like those scenes of vehicles exploding just for bumping into a tree.
  • Why is Jaylah saving Scotty? It seems like a very risky thing to do on a planet where everyone is against everyone and she is all alone. She doesn't even know he has any worthwhile skill or that he is human until after she has saved him.
  • Why is the fast-drying trap-goo breaking immediately when Jaylah knocks at it, but it can withstand gunfire/laserfire from the enemies?
  • The scene where Kirk drives around on the motorbike was just /faceplam. They choose the rockiest damn planet in the universe and think having him motorbiking around is going to look plausible? It would've been so easy to make that scene look less stupid, just make it less rocky!

I could probably go on all day, and some of these are just minor things I would normally not even care about. I'm usually not someone who gets all worked up about minor inconsistencies or bad scenes, but when basically every scenes is like this it just racks up and gets impossible not to notice or care about.

My face during the opening scene.

Worst of all though was all the squandering of characters this movie does. I didn't feel like a single character got any good screen time, not even the ones that actually had quite a lot of it, like Kirk and Scotty (weird that Pegg would give himself so much screen time btw). They're just there, delivering lines. None of the character development from the first two movies whatsoever. Most just feel underused, like Bones and Spock who don't get anything worthwhile to do. I had to think to remember what Sulu got up to in this movie. Some are there but are just not explained, like Manas. Who is he? What is he doing there? What the heck was he good for in the movie because he accomplishes nothing and could've basically been replaced by a big rock and it wouldn't have changed anything. Jaylah was alright though.

The movie almost had me intrigued for the first half, even with all the stupidity that was going on. I was almost ready to forgive it when they discovered Franklin and I felt like it might at least have a story-line that wraps up in a cool way. But no. In the end it was just one dumb scene after the next. Kralls line of reasoning could've made sense if they had given it more development, more time to sink-in, like they did with Khans (admittedly Khan has the benefit of being part of the series where he gets more explanation, I think this is needed for this kind of character that Krall in a way is trying to be). I never got the feeling that anything the characters did mattered, I only cared for them at all because they belonged to the universe I love so much. They don't say or do anything that comes off as funny or clever or even thought-through.

I'm sad too Elba...

Unlike the first movie (of this reboot trilogy), this movie completely failed in making me worry for the future of the Federation since I did not worry about Yorktown. The whole idea that the entirety of the Federation would be at risk because what happens at Yorktown was so badly explained that it never seemed like a real danger. It failed in making me awe for the villain like I did Cumberbatches Khan. Not because Elba lacks the charisma or potential, far from. I think he could've made a brilliant villain with better writing. It just makes me angrier knowing what Elba could've done with a better character. It failed in making me weep for the characters like the opening scene of the first movie. It failed in making me feel anything but disappointment, and probably the most disappointed I've ever been with a Star Trek movie exactly because the first two were so good. But even the less good movies of the past have been entertaining to watch, I have never regretted seeing any of them and would rewatch them anytime. This one, not so much.