Friday, October 23, 2009

Mysterious and Spooky (Addams Family games)

(Note: I opted to pull Fester's Quest, which starts with F, forward in the alphabet to go with the other Addams Family games.)

It is difficult to imagine, in 2009, the nearly 20-year-old world in which somebody thought there needed to be three Addams Family video games. This is not just because of the passage of time. Yes, Addams Family was reasonably popular for a few years there as the two movies came out.

No, the problem here is more fundamental - there's no actual reason to make three Addams Family games. It is not as though the Addams Family is a franchise that cries out for a video game. It is not an action based franchise. There are, to my knowledge, no Addams Family episodes, comics, or movies that are primarily about, for instance, fighting your way through a kitchen full of homicidal teacups so that you can kill a dragon living in a giant oven. If there were, people would validly say "Oh, that would make a great video game." But no.

In a somewhat astonishing feat of overblown media franchising, the three Addams Family games all have distinctly different source materials. The first to come out, Fester's Quest, came out in 1989, before the first movie, and is based on the television series. It is an unremarkable overhead-shooter game that a half hour of playing gave me no real sense what the point of was. It's got some fairly extreme difficulty going on - Fester can only take two hits before dying, is slower than all of the enemies chasing him, and has a very persnickity and inaccurate gun. And, erm... yeah, I've got nothing, really.

The titular The Addams Family is a fairly straightforward game based on the movie - you are Gomez. You have to rescue your family. Controls are a bit awkward, and the game doesn't quite come together, but it's not an abomination by any stretch of the imagination.

And then comes Pugsley's Scavenger Hunt, based on the animated series. This one is in some ways the most bewildering of the three conceptually. Pugsley is not even the third most prominant Addams Family character - that would be Thing, or, if we're limiting ourselves to ones that can talk, Wednesday. In fact, I am reasonably confident that Pugsley would come in last in a survey of "favorite Addams Family characters," were it not for the grandmother, who I bet most people forget about entirely. In fact, I'll do such a survey right now.

Survey results have 33% for Wednesday, 33% for Morticia, and 33% for lying around on the floor lazily. Though, to be fair, 1/3 of survey takers were dogs.

So, yes. Pugsley game - weird idea. But despite that, this is by far the most playable of the three, though part of that may be the fact that, for no discernible reason, the game abruptly gave me 99 lives which let me play very carelessly and still make progress. But it was a reasonably pleasant side-scroller.

Here's the thing, though - none of these games matter. None of these games made a significant mark on the world. If they were wiped from existence, their eradication would not significantly lessen the quality of this planet. They are not art.

But they are all significant games in terms of the investment needed to play them. They are not short games, they all require a measure of exploration and light puzzle solving. They're games that it would take a fair chunk of play to master, that it is clear time went into designing, and that nobody, absolutely nobody, cares about.

Every medium, of course, has things like this. Not every song is "Famous Blue Raincoat," and not every movie is "The Fountain." (And as an aside, that is the best song and best movie ever, and if you disagree you are wrong.) But this is something one usually avoids thinking of. Doubly depressing is the fact that, despite their utter insignificance, more people have played the three Addams Family games than will ever read my dissertation, any of my articles, or, for that matter, this blog.

Though it is not popularity that makes something important. Frankly, the world would be no worse off if Sugar Ray's "I Just Wanna Fly" were eradicated, and that was a horrifically popular song. But all the same, there is some sort of line between acts of creation that matter and ones that don't.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Casting at the Darkness (Four AD&D Games)

Because as we all know, A is for Dungeons & Dragons. Or at least, it was in the early 90s. And if you don't know why, this entry may not be for you, if you will.

For my part, D&D is not my role-playing game of choice. I am a White Wolf man, through and through, preferring stories where players are pushed hard emotionally. But I have rolled a d20 here and there in my time, and I know my THAC0 from my Save vs Poison, Paralysis, and Death. I have less patience for RPG video games, however, as they are basically the masturbation of gaming - what you do when you can't get the real thing. But there are four, count them four D&D games to have come out for the NES, and because I am a faithful blogger, I have played all four. For you.

We'll start with the bad - Heroes of the Lance and Pools of Radiance. These are two games that just did not come together for me. Heroes of the Lance had a breathtakingly clunky control scheme that led to a mass of death and a general failure to understand what seemed like they should be basic functions of the game like "how do I switch characters" or "How do I hit this short guy who my sword swings over the head of." In this regard, it was not entirely unlike my experience reading the Dragonlance books on which it was based.

Pools of Radiance, on the other hand, I am actually more or less unable to review in a sensible manner. Because the game is actually, astonishingly, worse than its sequel. This is an impressive feat, because its sequel contained a bug whereby it would delete your entire hard drive when you uninstalled it. I mean, maybe there's a good game in there somewhere. But here's the game I played - first, you spend time rolling a character. Then, you start playing the game, which begins with a several minutes long tour of the city. The city consists of numerous repetitions of the same wall and door, none of which are labeled in any way so as to orient you. Then you are left in front of a dungeon that is crawling with monsters. Being as this is a D&D game, you enter the dungeon.

There you are swiftly cut down in one hit, you get a game over, your character is deleted entirely, and you have to create a new one and sit through the several minutes long tour of the city. Again.

Seriously. In my half hour, I didn't get any further than this.

We should stop here, and note that what interests me about roleplaying games is that they are an emotional medium. The focus on forcing players into using the first-person and thus into a sort of active method acting is interesting to me. Because it creates the opportunity to carefully construct dramatic and powerful emotional moments.

Video games are a fascinating medium, and I love them, but the only emotion they generate with any reliability is white-hot rage. And so they are a poor medium for role-playing. Role-playing is also a fundamentally social experience. It is about creating a narrative that is experienced vividly by a small group of people, and is inaccessible to everyone else. So I should modify, a socially anti-social experience. But it is an intense shared experience, and this is what makes it interesting. It is intimate. One has strong emotional ties to ones gaming buddies. I have friends I rarely talk to except about gaming, and yet those friendships are still some of the most intense and significant friendships I have.

That said, Hillsfar, in its own strange way, does capture the feeling of a D&D game. You run around confused and directionless, get into dungeons, are arbitrarily punished for things you do not entirely understand, and, when things go badly, are kidnapped by bandits and robbed with no chance of defending yourself. It is, in short, an exact clone of D&D when played with an overly sadistic DM. I have to stop short of calling the game fun - I have no desire to go back to it. But playing it, one constantly feels as though one is on the brink of having a really good time.

Finally, there is Dragonstrike - at once the worst and best use of the D&D license. Where the other three games attempt to produce something resembling the D&D experience, in Dragonstrike you are a dragon. You fly over land, and burn shit up. Or freeze it. Or whatever. It's straightforward. It's fun. The first boss is kind of killer, but it leaves me with the feeling that I could get good at the game and enjoy it.

This is perhaps the thing I like most about video games. Even a truly great video game is not, generally speaking, high art. That doesn't make it uninteresting in the slightest, and it doesn't make it a stupid medium. But it is, for better or for worse, about fun.

But it does make it a poor substitute for RPGs.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bodies in Motion, Bodies in Spaceships (A Nightmare on Elm Street and Abadox)

It is 1989. Five Nightmare on Elm Street movies have been released. The fifth one of these establishes that Freddy Krueger was born when a nun was trapped in a room with 100 maniacs all of whom raped her. Actually, as she was apparently raped "hundreds" of times, I suppose it's even worse than that. I mention this just because, as I was reading up on the series because I've never actually seen a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, and I was kind of floored by it.

Alongside this is the release of the NES game based on the series - a straightforward and not entirely unpleasant side-scroller that's just a bit stingy with the lives and continues. The player controls a random teenager fighting off the assault of Freddy Krueger. By punching all sorts of things.

It is strange, in 2009, to go back 20 years and play a game with primitive graphics that is nonetheless a licensed property. Licensed video games are a strange duck - video games remain a fairly poor narrative form, and so there's no great reason to adapt movies and the like into games.

I have been debating with a new friend the validity of realism. (I am opposed to it) Closely tied to this is the idea of immersion - the whole rhetoric of video games, for instance, where we BECOME OUR CHARACTERS. I think this rhetoric is bullshit, and have written papers on it. In my more flamboyant moments - moments often fueled by gin or manic social occasions - I decry realism as a whole. The goth club was both.

So licensed games, which are more about the idea of being a part of the movie, are sort of strange to see when 20 years old, when you're running around as a generic-looking teenager fighting a non-desrcript thing that is supposedly Freddy Krueger. And it's tough to get any sense that the game is evoking the source material.

Very strange. But not the sort of horrific grotesqueness of massive gang rape.

One year later, Abadox hits. Abadox is a shooter in which you fly into an alien and destroy him from the inside. It's straightforward. It punishes death by taking away all of your weapons, because if you couldn't get through that spot fully armed, you should do a lot better without all your weapons. It's brutal. It's not particularly interesting, but my half hour wasn't unpleasant.

I would certainly rather play Abadox for half an hour than prep my class for tomorrow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I Want to See People and I Want to See Light (A Boy and His Blob)

I went to a goth club last night, which is the sort of thing I do not usually do. I have been to clubs before. They are loud, full of people, expect me to dance, and require a conscious effort and decision to do something. All of these are things that I have generally opted not to do with my life.

There are things that change over time in life. One could look at the pair of a divorce and a broken engagement and figure that there must be something wrong with me - and it is possible that my tendency to get in committed long term relationships with lesbians qualifies. But it has led me to conclude that I am clearly capable of getting into long time relationships. This suggests that, despite my somewhat striking tendency not to like people, there is no "problem" as such. Combine with some anti-depressants, and the existence of an air-conditioned room that is not particularly loud, and you have a recipe for actually having fun.

On this subject of supposedly unfun things that might not be as bad as I thought we come to A Boy and His Blob, which gets an entry all of its own because, God help me, I played it for two days.

A Boy and His Blob is one of the weirdest games around - a side-scroller game in which you explore an underground cavern for treasure. With, erm, your blob. Which is a sort of bouncing white smiling thing that you feed jellybeans and then it transforms into helpful items like ladders, trampolines, and, in an improbable feat of physics, a hole.

So. There's that.

Now, let me stress, the game has some serious, serious deficiencies. It's an exploration based game in which you have five lives, no real opportunities for 1-ups, and are frequently put in situations where you have to make blind guesses that can lead to your death. So you waste lives. Which is fine, but with no opportunities to get lives back and a lengthy and not terribly fast amount of replay to catch up with where you were when you died.

So basically, it's an exploration game that actively punishes you for taking a wrong turn. Big, big mistake there.

Also one that is fixable through the wonders of technology. A Game Genie code later and I have infinite lives - which still makes dying annoying, since I usually move back a number of screens, and I still have a limited number of jelly beans, but it makes the game reasonably fun to explore.

And so I sat down with it today, and beat a game that I'd more or less loathed for 20 years.

Lesson learned. Things change over time.

Now to test the lesson - am I any more capable of finishing this fucking chapter today than I was yesterday?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Hammer is Not Ready to Hand (3-D Adventures of World Runner and 8-Eyes)

The mail theft issue has maybe been resolved? At least, yesterday's mail wasn't stolen. Two Netflix discs arrive today, so if those vanish, I'll be up a creek a bit, as I don't think Netflix will be terribly amused by three discs in a row getting lost in the mail. But I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

3-D Adventures of World Runner is another sort of blase exercise in tedium - a Mario clone with a rudimentary 3-D engine such that you run straight across a plane and can veer right or left. Much effort is expended weaving through mazes of enemies and leaping over pits. It's another in what is clearly already a long line of games that are not so much fun as not-entirely-unfun. Entertainment in these games is a state of anesthesia. The game is a narcotic, offering bursts of mild pleasure in amongst the numbness of repetitive action. This is what fun is.

I would have found this morbidly and utterly depressing were it not for the stark reminder that life is not actually a nihilistic oblivion in which the best one can hope for is to feel nothing at all. It would have been nice if this reminder came in the form of a great game that provided genuine pleasure and stimulation, and enlivened the senses and the mind to show a hint of what grand heights the human mind is capable of. Instead, however, I played 8-Eyes.

8-Eyes is basically a crap Castlevania clone with a light skin of Mega Man. I love both of these games, but it turns out that it is very much possible to combine them into a total piece of shit.

Dear reader, I confess my failings - I could not last 30 minutes. 20 minutes of a maddening side-scroller where you have one life, your sword has less reach than most of the enemies you fight, and you routinely have to try to hit specific squares with your fucking hawk companion that just swoops around imprecisely at all times. The game is uncontrollable, awkward, uncreative, and pointless. And I mean pointless in the most perjorative sense. Unlike 720, where the absurd frustrations blend into a certain predictability, this game just keeps punching you in the stomach no matter what you try. This is not numbness, but a sort of passive aggressive water torture.

More on this thought later.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Serenity to Accept the Things I Cannot Change (720 and 1942)

A bit of updating of my game list led me to backtrack after playing 720 and pick up 1942, which I had skipped. I'll also be grabbing one or two others that got missed before I hit 8-Eyes, which is otherwise up next.

1942, it turns out, is a much better game than its sequel. It possesses an elegant simplicity that allows one to enter a sort of shooter zen where you just weave about the endless chain of identical enemies indefinitely. The game passes time with a sort of ruthless efficiency, and the indefinite number of continues takes the sting away from losing. It is the first game I've played in this project (and of course, as game #4, that's not saying a lot) that I've genuinely enjoyed, and if I hadn't needed to go to bed it would have gotten more than its half hour. It is a game that captures the very essence of video-game-as-distracting-timesink, NOT THAT THAT IS THE CORE OF THIS PROJECT OR ANYTHING (my dissertation is great thank you for asking).

720, on the other hand, is a game utterly without merit, but it is without merit in such an absurd way as to become a strange sort of art object. It's a skateboarding game. You skate around town to various skating parks after earning enough points to get tickets in. You are also randomly:

Mowed down by cars.
Mowed down by motorcycles.
Mowed down by invisible skeletons.
Mowed down by bodybuilders.

Interestingly, none of these things kill you. You take a stumble and get back on the board. What does kill you?

Killer bees that are released if you take too long.

I strangely love this game. I think it is because of the degree to which it seems such perfect psychological preparation for the real world. For instance, today I learned that my mail was being stolen over the last few days, opening me to risk of identity theft, plus meaning the part I need from Ikea has vanished. This pisses me off. So do politics, the absurdity of my divorce, my dissertation, the job market, and many other things.

But somehow I feel like if I can learn to accept invisible skeletons, I can learn to accept anything.

This is strangely empowering.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Zen of Irritation (10-Yard Fight and 1943)

10-Yard Fight, it turns out, is a football game. I should get out of the way that I have only the narrowest understanding of football, and that was acquired more or less wholly as a survival mechanism in the last four years. Most of it stems from the fact that my ex-wife likes to watch the Superbowl, and I was willing to tag along. This level of knowledge does not translate into any practical ability to render any sort of strategic judgment on football.

I say this mostly because I honestly do not have the first clue whether or not that is a liability in playing 10-Yard Fight. It is clear that I am not very good at this game, but that could be because I do not know what I'm doing in football terms, or it could be because the game is capricious, arbitrary, and silly. I honestly don't know. Stranger than that, I don't entirely find myself caring. The mechanics of the game, which feel frustratingly slow and clunky at first, eventually expand out to a certain zen state, and half an hour of playtime passed relatively quickly in practice. The game eats up tremendous amounts of time doing basically nothing, but in a way that evades
boredom somehow.

There is a metaphor to draw here - the video game as anesthesia, that which neutrally eats the time. It would be very easy to establish that 10-Yard Fight is my life right now - a befuddling but not-quite-unfun way to pass time. I reject this only because, frankly, I refuse to be that emo. But on the other hand, the slow and pointless crawl of my avatar towards the end zone is oddly poetic.

It is a vision that is all too quickly wrecked by the utter crap that is 1943. A straightforward shooter game of the sort that has been done far, far more often than it should have been, it is an almost classically unforgiving game. Your health is automatically sapped as time goes on, even if you avoid being hit. Your special weapon is actually crappier than your regular weapon. Your super attack doesn't work on bosses, which you have a limited time to beat. The game is brutal - a throwback to my youth when I better understood the fact that having fun is an extremely unpleasant activity based primarily on self-punishment. (Seriously, the number of games I remember playing almost entirely out of a sense of self-loathing is staggering, and I cannot wait to get back to some of them.)

It says something that I now appreciate the quiet, contemplative frustration of 10-Yard-Dash more than the aggressive machinery of death that is 1943.

I am not sure, however, what that something is.

Insert Cartridge

The Nintendo Project is a chronicle of playing every game ever released for the NES1.

The Nintendo Project is a chronicle of a life.

My earliest memory is when I was two and a half. In my earliest memory, I was already playing video games. That is, my earliest memory is not of playing my first video game, or getting a video game system. It is of playing the games. My first system was a Commodore 64. My first game was Dr. Seuss Fix-Up the Mix-Up Puzzler. Thus I am forced to consider myself as a video gamer. My entire remembered life has been at least partially ordered by video games.

I am also part of what others have called the Nintendo Generation. I got a NES when I was six. And I played it faithfully and avidly for years. I went on to other things, yes - a SNES when I was nine. A few years from 1995 to 1999 where I was primarily a PC gamer. Then college and the like. But the NES is the system I have the firmest memories of. It's the system where I can sit down with a game and discover that twenty year old muscle memory is still good.

This is not a review blog of NES games. Rather, it is an attempt to understand myself and my life. I am 27. I have been married, am in the final months of my PhD program, and I think too much. I want to understand myself. And so I'm playing every NES game ever, in the hopes that by understanding them I can understand my childhood, and somehow understand everything.

1. Some terms - I am going to play every game released for consumer purchase in the United States of America for the Nintendo Entertainment System that received the Official Nintendo Seal of Quality (i.e. that were properly licensed games). I will not play unlicensed games, foreign releases, hacks, weird demo things, or anything like that. I will play each game for at least half an hour. I will have to avoid games that I do not have the peripherals to play - that at the very least means no R.O.B. or Power Pad games.