Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Thoughts - Year of the Pokémon

I bought and started playing Pokémon Red yesterday, eventhough I already own both Blue and Red on the original cartridge. My reasoning was that I have to use my Game Boy DS to play those and eventhough I really like that console, it's not as handy as my 3DS. Problem solved, thank you Nintendo! But you can pretty much slap the name Pokémon on anything and I will buy it. And it is definitely a good year to be a Pokémon fan. Not only did we get this surprise re-release (I at least had not heard of it until the day before it was released), there is the announcement of Sun and Moon and the already known Pokken and Pokemon Go to get excited about too. I guess I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, but it sure would be cool with another Stadium/Colosseum game as well (as far as I can tell the last one was released 9 years ago!).

The most important choice you'll ever make in a game -

I've never played Red though, when I started out with the whole Pokémon thing I managed to get my hands on the Blue version. Not that they differ much, but I do prefer the exclusive Pokemon for Red than Blue. I was a bit late to the game back then, I was 14 when they were released but didn't get my own Game Boy and game until at least a year later. I swiftly started playing the TCG as well and was a couple of years older than pretty much everyone else playing it. I recall going to the Pokémon Club gatherings (we even had them in backwater Sweden, it says a whole lot about the popularity of the game) and being surrounded by kids 5-12 years of age whereas I was in my late teens. I really miss those times, it was good fun. Heck, I still have my Pokémon decks but no one to play with. I haven't played the TCG for 10 years though so players nowadays would consider my decks archaic at best.

I had partially forgotten how unforgiving the original games were, at least compared to the more recent releases. The Pokémon games were never particularly difficult, but if any of them are it would be the first gen ones. "When do I get my running shoes?" I naïvely asked my bf. "Aww, there aren't any running shoes in these games" he said and patted me on the head. Of course not, I should've remembered that. Nor do you get any starting Poke Balls and poison ticks outside of battle. Item Finder and XP Share were a lot less user friendly than they became in later games. There are no NPC conveniently standing around outside of caves waiting to heal your Pokémon either, you're on your own until you get to a town. I remember getting to Victory Road and giving up because I got stuck in some god forsaken cave and the random encounters were doing my head in. I'm not even sure I ever ended up beating the game. Well, time to rectify that then! The music is still brilliant though, squeezing every ounce of capability out of the Game Boy sound chip. I am already looking forward to getting to Lavender Town and not being able to sleep afterwards.

Mystery Dungeon are good fan service games -

Although I've far from tried every Pokémon spin-off, there are just so many, I've liked all the ones I have tried. Me and my friends played Pokémon Stadium loads, even the half-hearted mini-games, which makes me wonder if there was just nothing better for us to do or if our love for Pokemon also made us blind as to the quality of what we were playing. Pokémon Conquest was a cool crossover spinoff that I quite enjoyed. I don't technically count the Smash Bros games Pokémon spin-offs, but the Pokémon feature quite heavily and they're loads of fun. I've loved the Mystery Dungeon games I've tried, in fact I think they're my favorite Pokémon spin-off series. My only problem with them is the same I have for pretty much any Pokémon game - they're too simple. It says a lot about the quality of the gameplay when you're willing to play hours on end in a game that doesn't actually offer any kind of challenge. It can hardly be for the story either, so what makes Pokémon so compelling? I'm not even going to try and answer that question in what is supposed to be a relatively short post, let's leave that for another day. The funny thing is though, as I've pointed out before, eventhough there is a lot about Pokémon I think could be done better I never get bored and I keep getting back to it more than 15 years later. I can't think of another game series that I love and enjoy that deeply. And I'm hardly alone. If the Pokémon TCG clubs were to re-open, I'd be the 30-something among other 30-somethings.

I don't think Pokémon is going anywhere soon, in case anyone ever thought as much. Nintendo has a real nack for creating long lasting and loved franchises that aren't necessarily RPGs. In a way Pokémon has outgrown even Mario. You've got Pokémon in movies, series, cards (as mentioned), toys, merchandise... I already thought this was going to turn out to be a pretty good year for video gaming, but it has turned out to be a pretty good year to be a Pokémon fan as well.

I've written Pokémon so many times now, the word has lost its meaning...

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday Thoughts - Worked Up About The NX

The last issue of Gamesmaster 2015 had the typical "Games we're looking forward to" article, but also a short little tidbit about something that at least I found very interesting - rumours on the next console from Nintendo, currently dubbed the NX.

Eventhough I basically only play their 3DS nowadays, with short forays onto the N64 when the son feels up to it, I used to be all about Nintendo. I didn't get into PC gaming (which is what I mainly do nowadays) until I started playing WoW, and then I was pretty much only playing WoW for 8 years before I decided to check out other PC games. I definitely consider myself a PC gamer now, but it's a fairly recent thing. At the beginning it was almost exclusively Nintendo games (Mario Kart, Mario Party, Smash Bros, Yoshi's Story, Mario 64, Zelda OoT... and Golden Eye of course), sometimes rarely some Playstation game. My first console was the N64, it is what got me into gaming. So eventhough I don't play much of what they release nowadays, I'm still very curious about what they do. I've wanted to get a WiiU for ages, I just find the games too expensive... But back to the NX.

Probably not what it is going to look like -

There are several things about the rumours that have me excited, in fact pretty much everything. Unfortunately, being rumours it might of course be that none of it will actually be true, but one can dream. Let's take a closer look at some of them;

The fact that Nintendo are talking about NX as a "dedicated game platform with a brand-new concept" isn't what is getting my knickers in a twist. Anything else would've been more of a surprise really since this is the road Nintendo have been driving down very decisively since they started doing video games. Say what you want about Nintendos antics, they've had their ups and downs, their good decisions and their bad decisions. But they stick with their ideals and I admire them for it, mostly. I may not have been a massive fan of everything they've churned out (I really disliked the Wii for instance) but I think everyone can agree that the video game industry would be a much more boring place without Nintendo in it (and definitely a completely different place alltogether). So we know the next console is going to be more of what Nintendo has been doing the last 30 years - originality and stubborness married into a console. It's often very hit or miss. But I have some high hopes for this one because...

Nintendo filed patents for a console without a disk drive in 2014 and 2015.What does this mean? How would a console play games if not from disks!? Cartridges of course. And it makes perfect sense. Nintendo was, and seemingly is, never a fan of the disk system. It took them many years to adapt to it, and first introducing their own little mini-disks (as in little disks, not actual Mini-Disks) with the Gamecube (they were totally cute btw, I loved them) before they finally succumbed and went with regular disks. (Is it disc or disk btw? I'm not sure...) I'd like to say it's because of some sort of nostalgic love Nintendo harbours for the practical little things, but I am pretty sure it's just because cartridges are a lot harder to pirate than discs. Nintendo were always on the sterner side regarding pirating, and that is almost worthy of a post in itself (go read Game Over by David Sheff for a lot of information on this, it's truly a great book).

I on the other hand do harbour a nostalgic love for cartridges and if Nintendo could somehow overcome the old issue of cartridges not being able to hold as much memory as discs, then I am all for it. The major drawback and something that has always bothered me about Nintendo is that it would mean yet another console that isn't backwards compatible, but what the heck... I've gotten used to it by now and I don't own any Wii/WiiU games anyway (yet). I don't know how big the current gen games are and if it's even feasible to put that into a cartridge of some sort, but I do love the idea, especially since it seems like...

Nintendo might do a proper crossover between their stationary and handheld console. In fact, looking at the WiiU controller it looks a lot like a Gameboy already so it seems like another logical step on the Nintendo path to go the whole hog and make both their next consoles parts of eachother. Gameboy has been connectable to the stationary since its inception, but it's always been somewhat wonky and rarely worthwhile (except in games like Pokemon Stadium). Does this mean we can play the same games on the stationary and the handheld? I'm not sure where Nintendo could go with this, nor am I sure I want to use something similar to my 3DS as a controller for my stationary Nintendo console. I haven't really tried the WiiU controller, but it seems clunky. I am sure however that if anyone can find an interesting solution to both those problems, it'd be Nintendo. Yet again, I am loving the idea.

And finally, another thing that has been bothering me about Nintendo and that they might do away with - region locking their consoles. To me it was particularly annoying that they region locked the 3DS. But to be the only console maker to region lock your stationary console in a world that is increasingly global and increasiongly imports games from all over the place? That just tells people you are not reading the market, or don't care - both things Nintendo can be accused of on a regular basis. Sometimes it makes them a much needed and fresh breath of air in the industry, sometimes it just makes you facepalm and wonder if they even want you to buy their things. I feel like the NX will balance on the fine line between those two extremes, as pretty much every other stationary console Nintendo has created has.

Extra big thanks to Gamesmaster #299 for the info!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Man Up or Manual - Comparing Diablo-clones

As I've been on a streak of playing Diablo-clones, purely coincidentally as I often install games on random, I've also come to think of the subtle differences that make or break a game. What makes a good game? It's a question almost as difficult to answer as the big one about the meaning of life, especially since it often comes down to subjective ideas of fun. It just really popped into my head when playing these Diablo-clones specifically because they're somehow so comparable. Often the core mechanics are pretty much the same and the differences are too subtle to explain in a good way.

I never played Diablo or Diablo 2 much when they were released, but once I got around to it I loved them. I never beat Diablo, but went through Diablo 2 a couple of times. I was quite thrilled when Diablo 3 was announced but got bored with it after some months, I gave it another chance a while after but never could get into it. I've filed it under the list of "unsuccessful Diablo-clones" (although technically not a Diablo-clone), along with a whole bunch of others. Din's Curse (2010), Torchlight (2009) and FATE: The Cursed King (2011) joined that list pretty quickly. Eventhough I had fun with all of those games initially, since I am quite a fan of the core mechanic, I ended up losing interest fairly quickly. I even bought Torchlight 2, having heard it was better than the first one, over two years ago. I still haven't played it.

FATE is pretty much Torchlight -

Then I started playing Darkstone (released 1999) and something changed. The interesting thing was that all of the abovementioned boring games were simple to get the hang of. They either had tutorials that explained what you needed to know, or game mechanics easy enough to figure out on the run. But they lacked something that made it fun to stick around in the world. To me, Din's Curse, FATE and Torchlight all suffered from the same feeling of meaninglessness, the way all that killing never felt like it was leading anywhere or at least nowhere I wanted to go. Diablo 3 had the same problem of repetitiveness and sense that I was bashing my head against a wall even when I was making progress. But I had so much trouble figuring out how it differed from Diablo 2. What made the one fun and the other one not?

Torchlight -

Darkstone did things differently than the other games. It has a tutorial, if you can call it that - a dude tells you where the vendors are and you get to test some different weapons and that's it. Quests are given to you by random people walking up and telling you "good luck finding the Holy Shield! You're going to need it!". I am paraphrasing, but that is literally all the information you get. Not a word about where the item is, which seems like pretty essential information. It took me 2 hours to figure out how to make my companion use spells. Or how to lock spells into my spellbar. Or what the different skills you can buy actually do. All thanks to me digging up the actual manual of the game. Apparently you have to hold in shift while clicking a spell to make it stick to your spellbar. Apparently you have to tell your companion how much mana they can use by marking their mana bar before they start using skills. Apparently the Language skill is completely useless in single player.

Needless to say I was frustrated as hell the first couple of hours of playing, which wasn't the case with the other Diablo-clones. Diablo was released several years before this game so I was desperately trying to find the key that would show me all the loot at my feet, but alas. You have to use your eyes and try to see that tiny ass pixelated ring somewhere among all the cracked urn pieces. Trying to open a chest I often end up circling it because targeting is wonky as hell. There is no pet to conveniently run off and vendor your things. Eventhough you're a team your characters control as two different people, which means if you want to sell or buy stuff from the vendor you have to do it individually. Swapping between characters is also unintuitive (especially since there is no key for it) so I've already died a couple of times from freaking out when in the wrong character, using the wrong skills. But somehow, rather than making me angry, it made me all the happier when I got it right.

Closer to the style of Diablo -

But it was fun. I kept trying, I kept playing - eventhough all the game mechanics told me I should've given up long ago. I kept thinking "what the hell is wrong with this game" but I didn't close it down. When I finally ended up reading the manual to be able to actually do simple stuff, I even got a bit sentimental. I can't explain it. I don't think it's a bad thing at all that games nowadays come with tooltips and explain basic game mechanics from the start. There are even old games that do this without it feeling like the game is holding your hand, like Geneforge or Planescape: Torment. And I don't think it's the handholding alone that makes a game more or less fun, Darkstone also has a more interesting world and manages to make dungeon crawling feel like an adventure and not a chore, just like the original Diablo did. I passed a lake and a fairy in it told me to "blow the reeds from the smallest to the biggest". "What reeds?" I thought. There were no reeds anywhere and she didn't tell me where to find them or why (to play the song of snakes, whatever that was good for). After some clicking around I decided to just leave it. Venturing into the next dungeon, I happen to find some reeds in various locations. Now I am curious.

Worst graphics, best game? -

There was just something about the ruthlessness of getting thrown in at the deep end, the feeling of the game developers thinking "they'll get this, they're not stupid" (although clearly I was) that felt refreshing. If done right, and that's obviously easier said than done, saying "we don't need to tell you, you'll figure it out" really adds to the sense of achievement. You need a lot of faith in your game to think people will stick around for it. A lot of upcoming games will add this as an optional feature (like the new Hitman, and I believe the new Thief had this as well) where you can choose to get more or less information. I think that is a brilliant idea. If the popularity of Dark Souls is anything to go by, people enjoy good trial & error. And for the rest of us, there is always the manual.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Thoughts - Mass Set Up Effect

So I just finished Mass Effect for the first time and I thought it was... pretty meh to be honest with you. I heard the second one is far better, and admittedly the last couple of hours were a lot better than the first 90%, but I was still a bit disappointed considering I had heard so many good things about it. Oh, and there will be some spoilers here in case you haven't played it yourself yet.

This happens every now and then. Something gets praised to the sky and back and I just don't understand why. It's not just a matter of something being good, but just not for me (like the Godfather movies) but sometimes I am starting to wonder if I've just played/watched/read the same thing as everyone else?

Without starting any major arguments, here are a couple of examples of so called awesome experiences that just were lost on me;

  • The Avengers - What a boring movie.
  • Steins;Gate - What is interesting about this anime?
  • SW:The Force Awakens - Not bad, but I have so many issues with this movie.
  • Half-Life - Not enough action and wonky platforming forced into an fps.
Also meh -

And then we have games like Mass Effect, where I'm not entirely sure if I'm just missing the point or if it is actually not that good, people just thought it was at the time for different reasons. The same way some shit movies win Best Movie Oscar, games can be praised when they're first released, only for people to realize that they somehow duped themselves into liking it. Some things just don't age that well, or only perform in the specific context of when they were released.

So what is my problem with Mass Effect? For one thing, it failed to make me care about anyone. The squad members are not so bad (except for the human ones which are gratingly boring). Some feel sorely cliché, like Joker, written straight out of a text-book "pilot-guy" model and most others fail to convey any kind of feeling, like Captain Anderson. Saren had potential to be interesting, but doesn't get enough screen time or character build up. When I was supposed to choose who was going to die out of Ashley and Kaidan it was basically just a coin toss to me. These kind of choices normally come really difficult for me, I almost struggle with choosing which Lemming should die for the greater good, but I did not manage to feel a drop of emotion pretty much throughout the game. I was also disappointed at the voice work, having heard that Jennifer Hale (who does FemShep) was supposed to be so good. I didn't feel like she was noteworthy at all (which could just as well be bad writing).

I chose Kaidan -

Interestingly enough, eventhough the people in the universe didn't interest me, the universe itself did. Especially towards the end, when you walk around the Prothean areas, and get to hear a bit more about the story (which I assume will expand even more in coming games), I was feeling like I was finally really getting into it. Before then however, it felt like the story was just one anonymous planet-area after another fighting the Geth.

Combat was one thing I really enjoyed about Mass Effect, which only led to the issue that there wasn't enough of it. I thought difficulty was fairly well balanced and I definitely couldn't just spray and pray my way through things. I had, unknowingly, chosen the Soldier class and decided to go with Tali and Liara to compensate for my lack of powers. They did so splendidly, tossing enemies through the air while I was shooting them down Duck Hunt style, and those moments were the definite highlight of the game.

I didn't feel like the story managed to pick up much momentum until the last couple of hours, as mentioned. This might've been in part due to me checking out the side-quests, most of which were alright entertainment-wise but badly implemented. It just felt so wrong to head off on some quest to find this and that guy for whatever reason, when the fate of the Universe was in my hands and humanity (and most other species) on the brink of destruction. I couldn't help but thinking "I don't have time for this crap!" whenever someone asked me to do something that wasn't directly linked to the main quest. I only did them because I knew the game allowed me to do so, the story didn't and it never felt right.

Mo mining, mo problems -

Because of this every side quest felt unhinged and unimportant in comparison to what was at stake in the main story. For every one I completed I just ended up thinking "What's the point anyway, we'll all die soon". This way it didn't feel like the side quests tied into the universe in a good way, but more like they were thrown in to give you something to do. And no wonder, since the main story is actually fairly short, or so it felt. Maybe if you take your time to do everything before you finish the story, it would feel more coherent - I will never know as I accidentally continued the story instead of going on a side quest, so there were many I never finished. I will forever wonder what that fan guy was up to...

I never managed to figure out what the mining on planets was good for either, but hopefully that will play a more important or completely different role in subsequent games because it felt pointless in this one.

All in all I can say it seems Mass Effect suffers from a fate common of the first part of a trilogy - the set-up effect (Force Awakens has the same problem imo). The game has got this entire Universe and massive story to set up, it doesn't gain any momentum until the end of it, where it is time for part 2 to pick up the stick leaving the first part feeling a bit bland. It makes perfect sense for Mass Effect 2 to be the best part, because story wise this is where the most action will take place (part 3 suffering from the wrap-up effect instead). I haven't played the other parts yet so we'll see if I still feel this assessment is correct at the end of it.