Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Years and Ten Days (Arkanoid and Arkista's Ring)

I do not know for certain that I have ever played Arkanoid before. And yet it is as familiar to me as anything. It's a classic Breakout clone - a genre of games that constitute an almost primordial stage of video games, the barest sliver of content separating them from Pong. It's the default game on the Blackberry, for God's sake. I can play it like I was born for the task. I don't remember the first time I played a Breakout style game. There is no trick to it for me. There is no lag of unfamiliarity, or feeling about for my way. There are only my fingers twitching out their already known moves.

Arkista's Ring is more complex - a sort of action puzzler based on clearing monsters out of an area, grabbing the key, and exiting. It is a game I had never heard of, little yet played. This too, however, eases down to a familiar patter - a few minutes of finding a rhythm and I can work my way through the levels. I cannot express this rhythm through any means other than play. It is known only by my fingers. But I slip into it easily enough, my body inhabiting this external role.

This is more than muscle memory. My nervous system becomes the completion of an entire circuit of processing and strategy. Well below the level of thought I dance my thumbs along the buttons. Change controllers, change levels, the result is the same. My nervous system is as programmed as the cartridges themselves, circuitry wired into a lump of flesh instead of plastic. The particulars of the game barely matters. I can thumb out the rhythm of a new game as easily as I can walk down an unfamiliar street. My nervous system plays games, the same way it walks, eats, and sleeps. My eyes see paths of movement and timing like they see social situations or tools. I play games with my genetic memory.

I cannot have been born doing this, even if I do not remember a time when I did not play video games. But I may as well have been. Arkanoid's paddle may as well be a mastodon thundering over the horizon, scattering avenues of escape across the landscape. The ball bounces off the paddle, and I dutifully kindle fire for my dinner. I did not write myself. I am Player 2 in my own body.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Other People's Lives (Arch-Rivals and Archon)

I have never been one for sports games.

A few exceptions exist: Blades of Steel, NBA Jam, Mega Man Soccer, and the FIFA series. We have exhausted that list.

And so I never played Arch-Rivals. Even though it is a sort of proto-NBA Jam, in that it's a straight 2 on 2, and there is nothing resembling a ref, making tactics like "punching your opponents" an acceptable approach. The appeal of sports games, as I understand it, is the fact that they have a sort of continual difficulty curve. That is, where other games get to a point where you beat them. The idea behind a sports game is that, because of a combination of the virtue of competition with another human being and cheating AIs that scale to most difficulty levels, the game remains fun basically forever.

It's just not a genre I particularly love. Video games have generally been a solitary pursuit for me, in no small part because I've never felt like I'm at the same point on the skill curve as most of my friends, making the competition less than satisfying. And as I also wasn't into any sports until recently, there wasn't much motivation to try these games.

Arch-Rivals, though, is clearly pretty good. (And I'm curious, in this regard, what I'll think of Blades of Steel when it comes around) And playing it, I realize that for all I grew up on video games, vast depths of the medium eluded me at the time. I may be a video game geek, but there are limitless paths that could have taken. I am defined by video games the same way that a video game is defined by playing - a path unfolds. Programming designed to lead to vast configurability collapses inevitably towards a single experience.


No, seriously. This is one of the best games I've played on the NES, period, and its status as a minor classic of video gaming history is wholly underserved - this should be a major, recognized, iconic classic of the medium. Archon is a combination of chess and a 2-D fighting game, in which you play a turn-based chess-like strategy game, but captures of pieces are determined via single combat between the pieces. The pieces have varying attacks, speeds, move rates, and hit points, and furthermore about half the squares on the board shift steadily from black to white, granting increased power to one side or the other if they are standing on those squares.

It's a relatively simple game to pick up with just a little bit of awkwardness. The computer AI is way too hard for beginners, but playing against a friend should result in a fairly satisfying difficulty curve all around. But there's a real, real depth of tactics and strategy here, both in combat and in the main game. This is an absolutely delightful game, and one I missed growing up in part because of my lack of two-player gameplaying, and in part because I just missed it.

I should note that Archon has an iPhone port and a $15 Windows version, both at It's definitely worth the $3 for the iPhone version, and may be worth $15 for the Windows version if you like the genre.

Friday, February 19, 2010

We Learned the Sea (American Gladiators and Anticipation)

Much is made of what video games "teach" children. One oft-pointed out issue is the representation of death within video games. The argument is that video games desensitize us to violence and teach us that death is a triviality that can be undone.

It is true to some extent, but for the most part I disagree. For one thing, both of the games for today - American Gladiators and Anticipation - are relatively non-violent games in which you cannot die as such. American Gladiators has combat, yeah, but it's your standard American Gladiators giant foam bats sort of combat. Anticipation has no combat - it's a straightforward "Guess what the game is drawing a picture of" game - a sort of NES Pictionary where the game does the drawing.

For another thing, in neither game is the failure (we'll call it that instead of death) in any way desirable. One still wants to answer correctly, and to avoid getting knocked off your ledge. One wants to survive, to thrive, to win. The games do not glamorize death in that regard.

There is much I've learned from video games - after all, I was already playing them at the time of my earliest memory. But what I have learned of death I did not learn from video games.

I have never seen a video game in which the player is forced to yearn for death. Where the player is stripped of that which defined them, slowly and agonizingly, a death by a thousand cuts, until finally they are left with the crushing realization that there is nothing to live for. For the player and everyone around them to realize that death would be easier, kinder, preferable to this. For the player to linger still after this realization, suspended in a moment that is like that brief pause between when you cut yourself and when the pain and blood flow. Only the pause is a week, or maybe longer. The player is never left searching for a memory of when they last didn't welcome death. The player never realizes that death would be an end to an act of mourning that has stretched back beyond recollection. A one-up, an extra chance, a little bit longer is never a cruel, sick joke played by a capricious world.

Video games teach us nothing of death, because they teach us nothing of mourning, and there is no death without mourning. There cannot be. And in video games, where death is an interruption in play, a cessation of play, it is not death. Death is failure in a video game. Death is getting knocked off the ledge. Death is staring at the picture, not knowing what it is. This is the most pernicious lie video games teach us about death. Not that it is trivial - find me a regular video game player who has never flipped out at a game when they died and I'll find you a liar. But that it is controllable. That the line between life and death is as simple as muscle memory.

I gave both my grandfathers a game. I have nothing for my grandmother. There are too many papers, and too much dissertation. Life goes on. That's the worst thing about death. The fact that no matter how deep your mourning, the next day the sun rises anyway.

Give me a lifetime of staring at that picture, and I'll still never work it out.

Rest in peace, Nana.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Do I Spend Valuable Time (Alpha Mission and Amagon)

"Why should I bother" is a question frequently asked, and, if we're being honest, frequently worth asking. For instance, it is worth asking what positive role my dissertation will or even might play in the world. It is worth asking what value the last ten years of my life spent pursuing higher education degrees was worth given the wholesale failure on my part to get a job. These are interesting existential questions that deserve committed and deep attention.

It is also worth asking why the fuck anyone bothered to make Alpha Mission or Amagon, a pair of utterly pointless games, albeit for different reasons.

Alpha Mission falls into the classic genre of shooter. I want to point out that I have thus far done 33 NES games, a full SIX of which were shooters. None of these six were innovative. None were clever. Only one - Air Fortress - was even remotely interesting as a game. The rest were generic, formulaic executions of the genre that added nothing to the world. And while I can understand what causes a shit game like Aliens 3 to come into the world, Alpha Mission, a game that has no licensed property behind it, is far more puzzling. People got together and created a generic and pointless shooter for the sake of doing so. Why?

Amagon is different - for one, it's a side-scroller, not a shooter. It's also almost, but not quite, an OK-good game. Almost. It's very, very hard, yes. But that doesn't invalidate it as a game. It has no continues and so is basically unbeatable, yes. But again, Battletoads is a good game. And look, it has reasonably tight controls, sensible hit detection, and behaves more or less as expected. So why is it bad?

Because the bosses are basically unbeatable unless you have a specific power-up of which there is one hidden in every level, held by an enemy who is unmarked in any particular way. And there's no back-scrolling, so if you miss it, well, you probably shouldn't have missed it, now should you have.

So basically, take a good game, and then for no discernible reason add a mechanic that renders it functionally unplayable. And, I mean, this took work. You had to actively decide to make the bosses unbeatable. Why? Why did someone do this? Why was it considered a worthwhile use of someone's time to take a good game and add a feature to make it suck?

Why should I bother. A question we should ask more frequently.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hard, Man (Alien 3 and All-Pro Basketball)

I read, the other day, a post on some games website that hypothesized that, as a reaction against the Wii, we are entering a new era of valuing difficulty in video games. The argument was, it seemed to me, complete nonsense. Alien 3 is basically why.

See, in Alien 3 you have the following - you control Ripley, crawling around in dungeons trying to rescue prisoners. You have a time limit to do so, and three lives. However, there is nothing resembling a map to the prisoners. Thus it is basically impossible to do any given level on the first try. Only when you die are the locations of the prisoners uncovered in an excessively long sequence of watching their guts explode. And there are no continues. So the game is designed to force you to fail repeatedly in pursuit of success. And start from the beginning each time.

Which would be inexcusable if it were a good game, but it's not. It's a clunky, awkward side-scroller with pathetic enemy AI. The Aliens, which in the movies are horrible lurking terrors, are here the very definition of stupid, running back and forth over the same track of land with nothing resembling a predatory instinct, and a pesky habit of dying after being shot five times. If these things invade Earth, we are all going to be FINE. Trust me.

Oh yeah - and the game is fucking backwards controlled. The jump and shoot buttons are reversed from EVERY OTHER NINTENDO GAME EVER.

All-Pro Basketball, where you can play as such cleverly named teams as the Los Angeles Breakers and the New York Slicks, takes a different approach towards badness. It's a confusing, fast-paced sloppy mess of unplayability. The game's biggest problem is the sudden pause when you cross the half-court line at which point the perspective flips and you end up moving in the opposite direction. But the sloppy, unpredictable passing, chaotic use of the screen, and general crappiness doesn't help.

And let's be clear. Both of these games are hard. Really, really hard. But theirs is not a difficulty that ends up belonging to some sort of being a satisfying challenge. They're just bitchy and frustrating. Compare this to VVVVVV, a non-Nintendo game I've been playing off and on for a few days now. VVVVVV is bracingly, cruelly hard. And yet it is easy to pick up and play. It does what you expect. And when you die, you feel consistently as though it's your own damn fault, not the game's for setting you up for failure.

Here endeth the lesson.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Real World of Darkness (Al Unser Jr Racing and Alfred Chicken)

Let's discuss realism.

Fuck realism..

Or at least that's my usual speech on the subject. If I wanted realism, I'd interact with reality. What I want out of a video game is playability, which is generally largely distinct from realism. For instance, I cannot fly an airplane. In that regard, Airwolf was an INCREDIBLY LIFELIKE SIMULATION of what would happen if you put me in an airplane, which is that I could not take off, and if I did take off, I would promptly crash and die.

Penny Arcade pointed this out as the essential problem with the new Tony Hawk Ride game. It is an incredibly lifelike skateboarding simulator. Unfortunately, as they cannot skateboard, they cannot play the game. And those who can skateboard, you know... skateboard.

Which brings us to Al Unser Jr Racing. And here is the thing - it does not matter to me in any way that Al Unser Jr. endorses this racing game. Because Al Unser Jr does not, so far as I know or can tell, have any experience whatsoever with game design. The fact that Al Unser Jr. has created this racing game is essentially meaningless.

What's strange is that Al Unser Jr. Racing is in no way a viable... anything, really. Unser is a US racer who competed on the CART circuit. The game, however, is clearly a Formula 1 game. So Unser's contribution is very clearly to have leant his name to an already completed Formula 1 game as a marketing tool.

Since the game came out, the United State's continued perverse aversion to any sports that it could conceivably not be the best in the world at has led the ratings for the Indy 500, the main event in the circuit Usner competed in, to plummet as the Daytona 500 and NASCAR grow. Now IndyRacing's best-known racer is, frankly, better known for showing off her boobs on Superbowl ads than for racing. Woo.

Al Unser Jr is thus an obsolete mark of inappropriate endorsement. The game came out in 1988, when he had not won the Indy 500 nor the CART championship yet. His later years have been marked with a series of failed comebacks and alcoholism. Prior to loading his game for the first time, I'd never heard of him. A minor champion of a dying sport, immortalized via an obsolete video game that inaccurately depicts the basics of his sport. This is neither fame nor ignonimity, but rather the non-fame of one like Barbara Joyce Dainton, the second to last surviving passenger on the Titanic.

The game, it ought be noted, is nothing special.

Alfred Chicken walks a different road to problematic. It is often decried, in movies, that so few original properties are developed anymore. Certainly this is true - the top ten movies of each of the last five years have been about 80% adaptations, sequels, and remakes. On the other hand, those original properties include such gems as Hitch, Happy Feet, and Avatar. Likewise, with video games, sure, the big games are part of multi-million dollar franchises. On the other hand, your alternative could well be a game where you're a chicken running around a maze of robotic mice pecking balloons.

I'm just saying. Originality is not an inherent virtue.

Monday, February 1, 2010

General Genre (Air Fortress and Airwolf)

Let's talk about genre. In video games, genre is, interestingly, usually used to talk about the interface rather than the content. That is to say, a sci-fi based space flight sim and a World War II flight sim are considered to have more in common than a World War II flight sim and a World War II first person shooter.

One of the great white hopes of video games is the successful genre fusion. The game that melds together two different types of game into a satisfying, crunchy whole. There have been some worthy contenders here and there - the Mario RPG line has steadily evolved into a satisfying action/RPG fusion. Actraiser is a mildly successful SimCity/Sidescroller fusion.

Air Fortress, a largely forgotten title by HAL Laboratory, splits its focus between the shooter an the Metroid genre, the Metroid genre already, it should be noted, being a fusion of the side-scroller and Zelda. The player begins as, so far as I can tell, a man strapped to a rocket flying towards what the player is helpfully informed is an Air Fortress. The game does not give much more plot than this, but it quickly becomes clear that one is to destroy the Air Fortresses, and really, in the world of NES games, this is an adequate substitute for actual motivation. The player goes through a fairly standard "shoot enemy spaceships" Gradius-style game before getting to the entrance to the fortress and switching to a side-scroller infiltration game where you shoot your way through.

The side-scroller has one of those classically quirky video game concepts, namely the self-depleting life bar. In this case, moving slowly depletes your life force, making it one of the rare games where you can walk yourself to death. Thankfully standing still increases it, and enemies do sufficient damage that this is basically never actually a concern. So you maneuver through generic if maze-like space stations to destroy them.

The problem with these fusion games is that, ultimately, they do neither of the things they set out to do particularly well. Mix and match is not, in the end, creativity, and these hybrid games end up being unsatisfying because they lack any clear and interesting play mechanic.

Which is often the case. Rarely does mixing two things lead to a third better thing. This is why musical supergroups usually blow, and why you should not dip a steak in chocolate.

Speaking of play mechanics, it turns out that you can't do a 3-D Flight Simulator on the NES. Pity nobody told the developers of Airwolf.