Archive for the 'Games' Category Page 2 of 7

Sega I Love You, But…

The conversation was short. It went like this:

Me: Is Sega looking to get back into the hardware business?
He: Sega should get out of the software business.

Harsh. But what else is there to say really? For Sega, the early 2000s was a breathtaking time that found them overflowing with ideas (sometimes half baked, sometimes brilliant). Think of it: we saw Space Channel 5, Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Jet Set Radio, Chu Chu Rocket, Phantasy Star Online, Samba De Amigo, Rez, and Super Monkey Ball within just 2 years. Stunning. Then it all fell apart.

Five years later, it’s hard to remember a time when Sega didn’t just churn out half-assed Sonic retreads and, oh yeah, ads like this. (If that mess is supposed to be a comment on male/female relationships, they’d do far better to follow Capcom’s lead.) But, then, maybe the backwards helmets is an analogy for Sega’s current business strategy: driving with the blast shield down.

That’s tough to take because Sega still shows periodic flashes of genius; typically courtesy of one Toshihiro Nagoshi (Daytona, SMB, F-Zero GX, Yakuza). But the spark really seems to be gone in most ways that matter. Was it the failure of Dreamcast? The awkward merger with Sammy? The death of long time benefactor Isao Okawa? It’s hard to say.

Regardless, I still have a warm place in my heart for the once American company called Service Games. To paraphrase James Murphy: Sega, I love you, but you’re bringing me down.

Find more Sega at Wikipedia.

Mario and the New Golden Age of Gaming

Man is the opening of Super Mario Galaxy awful. I’d heard the front-end cutscene was obnoxious, but the playable bits ain’t much better. Well, I suppose that’s one way to set expectations. In this case, though, it’s pretty unnecessary because what follows is jaw droppingly great.

I mean I’ll be damned if that isn’t the wickedest virtual playground I’ve seen, complete with gravity effects that largely inhibit my well documented falling allergy. In Galaxy, all the vertigo-inducing fun of Descent comes rushing back; this time alongside the whimsy of The Little Prince’s tiny planets, each one different. A friend put it this way:

One of the best things is that nothing lasts too long. They have ideas in the game that could be their own full fledged title. Then they just throw it away. Creatively, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

While I’m still not the biggest fan of lives as a game mechanic, it’s hard to worry much about it when you’re rushing headlong through clever idea after clever idea. It’s startling.

Speaking of embarrassment of riches, the industry as a whole has found itself in something of a new golden age, too. How’s that? Here’s a proof point: before this year, Edge magazine (known for its notoriously tough reviews) had only given a top score to 4 games in its 14 year history: Mario 64, Gran Turismo, Halo, and Half-Life 2. This year, though, we’ve already had two more (Halo 3, The Orange Box). Assuming Mario Galaxy also gets a 10 (seems likely), that’s 3 in just one year.

And what I find fascinating is that each of the new 10s leads in its own way. Halo 3’s Forge pushes the envelope in game-based collaborative end user content creation, The Orange Box overwhelms us with volume and variety (single and multi-player, old and new, episodic and self contained). And Mario, well, Mario goes old school by comparison — relying on bite sized chunks of breathtaking single-player gameplay (plus nostalgia) to find its future. Diversity is the future of gaming. Greatness don’t hurt either.

While some (myself included) often long for the good old days of the 80’s arcade scene and others lambaste the new school as utter garbage, it’s pretty clear we’ve found ourselves alive at a pretty special time. And I’ll be damned if a certain well traveled plumber isn’t leading the way again. Evergreen indeed.

For more on the design of Mario’s new world, see Gamasutra’s Garden To Galaxy.

Update: It’s official — the Christmas Edge gave Mario Galaxy a 10.

Where Now Samus?: Metroid’s Next Revolution

You’d think I’d know how to feel about Metroid Prime by now. As one of the few first person shooter heroines that’s more brains than bustline, Samus Aran is certainly to be applauded. And the triumphant transition of the Metroid franchise from 2D to 3D is still unsurpassed. Couple that with Metroid Prime 3’s tight armchair FPS controls and a world that’s full of beautiful, tactile touches that use the Wiimote just right and it’s paradise, no?

Well, kinda. And that’s where I always get stuck. Because in Metroid, you’re playing detective — exploring burned out space hulks and abandoned planets — a kind of future archeologist trying to piece together what happened after the fact. When Metroid is at its best, you feel the elation of an outer space Indiana Jones dusting off the Lost Ark (like in steampunk Skytown). When it doesn’t, you just feel lost — in a maze of beautifully different but functionally identical rooms, tracking and back tracking ad nauseam (find the energy cells, Indy!).

That’s when the ugly questions come out: Just how many times can Samus lose all her powers before she gives up getting them back again? And it’s in those moments that you have to worry; worry about whether all the rust coming off Metroid Prime 3 means that the series really doesn’t have another go-round in it — at least not a very interesting one.

I suppose it’s most telling that, even though I finished Metroid Prime 3 only a few weeks back, I remember very little of it. I recall the elation of using the grapple to rip shields from enemies. I remember surprisingly entertaining buddy action with the ship, blowing up ground targets and assembling the Theronian bomb. I remember morph ball physics every bit as fun as they were the first time back on Tallon IV. And that’s…it?

But in some ways that defines Metroid Prime. It’s about twisty little passages all alike, it’s about shooting the weak spot, it’s about some seriously fine control mechanics, it’s about getting that one new power that will push you over the top and then wanting the next one. For all those reasons, I’ve loved Metroid Prime. But for many of the same reasons I wonder if Samus hasn’t become a prisoner of expectations. A perfect example is fan reaction to the biggest departure in MP3: the not-so-solitary G.F.S. Olympus segments. “That’s not Metroid!” they screamed, and they were right.

And that’s the challenge for the next Metroid title — to do precisely what Metroid did when it went jumped from 2D (Super) to 3D (Prime). It has to take all those expectations and treat them not as a burden but as a stepping stone to the next level. I can’t imagine how difficult that is, but I would trust nobody more than Nintendo to pull it off. After all, they look poised to do the same with Mario Galaxy.

It’s funny that after this Wii flagship title shipped with all the fanfare of the second coming, and doing so many things just right, that we suddenly find ourselves back where we started: expecting another Metroid revolution. But I suppose that’s the nature of trilogies, and the burden of renewing a franchise that has such a long and well loved history.

We last wrote about Metroid in Past Perfect and women in games in Black Women Got Game. Find more Metroid history at Wikipedia.

The Sounds of Great Game Places

What’s your favorite game soundtrack? Games transport us, be it to sprawling floating kingdoms or a backyard barbecue. And music plays an important role in making those places feel whole, from the symphonic deep space expanses of Homeworld to the rocked out city streets of Jet Set Radio to Katamari Damacy’s giddy j-pop. The best of them stick with you, reminding of places you never wanted to leave.

Digging through my music collection (kicking the Windows habit will do that to you), I noticed that just three of the many game soundtracks I’ve collected over the years have hung around in a meaningful way — creating unique places that I still regularly return to in sound.

When you hear the opening bars of Hyllian Suite, for example, you know you’re in for something special. Jade’s lighthouse home is a warm, hopeful place, and the world beyond is at once more amazing, amusing, and threatening. The Beyond Good & Evil soundtrack captures that world deeply, along with the fantastic characters that inhabit it. Who can forget the high tech rasta rhinos from Mammago’s Garage or the secret passage discovered to tune of Slaughterhouse Scramble’s butt rock or Double H’s quietly insistent message in Enfants Disparus? (Download it here.)

Where BG&E provides places where we can sit still and soak up the atmosphere, Wipeout 2097 (aka XL) never stops, giving only tiny flashes of a future landscape through the windows of anti-gravity craft moving at mind numbing speeds. That doesn’t stop us from imagining the world, though. And music plays an essential role in making that happen, with an electronic soundtrack that provides the perfect glitched-out counterpoint to the highly finessed, Red Bull reflexed racing at hand. Even when you can’t see the city for the demonically winding track in front of you, that world is taking shape in your mind’s eye, guided by sound. Until Wipeout, Playstation only promised the future. Wipeout finally delivered it — and the soundtrack played a triumphant role in making that future feel real. (Grab a used copy of the game cheap and rip the soundtrack right off the disc. Ah how we long for the free music love of PS1.)

Ever wonder what orange sounds like? Rez has the answer. No game ties music and visual so tightly together. After all, the game world in Rez is the music, synaesthetically speaking of course. That’s because every interaction with the world magically happens in time with the music and vice-versa — one intimately informs the other. It’s a stunning accomplishment and one that gives every area its own diverse flavor. From Egyptian fireflies emerging from the blackness alongside Buggy Running Beeps to the steps of a pixelated giant in a Chinese-inspired labyrinth, fittingly set to Rock is Sponge. But none of them can top Adam Freeland’s enigmatic Fear accompanying the mindblowing inside-out final stage. (Import the soundtrack via Amazon.)

Rez is a case study in trigger theory gone right — the idea that a few well placed hints (musical in this case) can trigger a wholly new reality inside the player’s head, far beyond what exists on-screen. But the other games here use music to similar effect. The experience happens within you; as a deep connection between what the game provides and your own memories. Triggers let you escape into your own dreams, instead of those of the game designer. It’s genius when done right. And my favorite soundtracks trigger memories of places I long to visit again and again.

We last talked about the intersection of music and place in Colma: Slacker Awesome in Deadsville, USA.

Finding Frequency: Beats Beyond Rock Band

Imagine a game where you play music with your friends. You each play different instruments, and you can jam with them online. It’s Rock Band, the much anticipated follow-up to Guitar Hero, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a game that arrived half a decade earlier.

That game is called Frequency and it’s important because it added a fantastic new idea to the beat genre: choice. No game has done it since.

With other beat games (Parappa, Band Brothers, Ouendan), you either play the notes in the single track in front of you or you lose. It can be fun, but it can also turn quickly into monotony. (How much can you really feel like you’re playing an instrument when you have to stick so close to a script?) Where others have one track, Frequency gives a choice of eight — each a different instrument. Think that drum part is no fun? Switch to vocals, guitar, synth, or another percussion track for the next phrase. You choose what to play each and every measure, and that makes the difference between feeling like you repeated the music and feeling like you created the music.

But here’s what really makes Freq special: As you master each track, it continues to play in background. You spin one track, then the next and the next, building to a crescendo when the whole song is finally thumping and you can freestyle on top of it. The feeling is sublime because the connection between performance and musical reward has never been so supremely well crafted. And that same track-based motif translates flawlessly when you jam online with your friends, either competitively or laying down tracks for an original song (yep, there’s a composition mode, too). It was the very first online game for Playstation 2 and the first online music game ever.

All this speaks to how stunningly innovative Frequency was when it came out in 2001. That only becomes clearer when we look at games like Rock Band (made by the same folks), which are only now starting to add back the features Frequency had then — different playable instruments, play online with your friends (but still no “choice”). And Freq was a special kind of addictive, too. In March 2005, Edge put it this way:

Though Amplitude marked a step up in terms of MTV-friendly spit and polish, it’s the pared down strobes and breaks of the original [Frequency] that stand the test of time.

Why didn’t it take off? Well, Frequency wasn’t all that approachable. And that’s perhaps the most important innovation of Guitar Hero; making the music game immediately accessible to the most game phobic among us (that’s no small thing). The abstract visuals probably didn’t help, either, though retronauts among us might appreciate those slotted tunnels as loving nod to the arcade classic Tempest.

As much as PS2 was built on big brash titles like GTA and Gran Turismo, the platform deserves just as much credit for cultivating smaller gems: Ico, Rez, Katamari. Soulful, clever stuff that sometimes sold and, well, sometimes didn’t. Frequency’s a didn’t, but it should still be remembered alongside the better known PS2 boundary pushers, as a truly special small game the world still hasn’t quite caught up to.

Find more music game futures at DDR Can’t Flow and more Frequency at

Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

First off, I want to thank everyone who posted thoughtful comments in response to my discussion of Resident Evil 5. A lot of fascinating points have been raised, and a central one is the question of guilt. There’s a reason I chose not to call Capcom racist, but instead focused on the images presented in the recent 3 minute trailer. That reason (aside from not wanting to use the word loosely) is that I suspected there might be something cultural at play. Wired blogger and author Chris Kohler provides some insight:

The problem as I see it is that the game’s Japanese designers don’t have the history that would lead them to understand how this might be read in American cultural context. (more)

In an email message, he went a bit further:

I’ve been going to Japan for seven years, and I’ve seen lots of race-based caricatures used in products or in advertising. They don’t have any history of race-based conflict like America does, and so I think they just don’t have that feeling that it’s inappropriate. By and large there is no malice behind it — I imagine they just feel that race is like any other visual concept, open to use in any creative way they see fit.

I’m fully prepared to accept the possibility that Capcom is not intentionally drawing on painful stereotypes, but that does not mean they’re allowed to be oblivious to them or their impact. To the contrary, as a company that sells into many markets worldwide, it is very important for them to be aware of cultural issues. If they fell down anywhere, it seems likely to be here — understanding stateside racial sensitivities.

Of course, a trailer is not a full, playable game. But trailers are a way for game companies to manage impressions of their games. If a game is presented in a troubling way in a trailer, folks can and should react to that presentation. As has been pointed out in the comments, a number of interpretations are possible, but I would still argue that certain images in the RE5 trailer are problematic as they are expressed presently.

We will have to wait until the final game ships to see what Capcom truly has in store. My hope is that they do something empowering and humanizing for Africa (or Haiti or wherever the game is set). Until then, we can only react to what Capcom gives us. (And, no, I haven’t written off buying the game.)

But here’s the broader point: The videogame is the most powerful medium yet devised, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what it can do. Games need to be taken seriously. In a private communication, Karsh Kincaid put it this way:

People may say “oh, it’s just a video game”, but video games are a big part of American pop culture. Moreso than that, these days pop culture serves a huge impact as the popular pedagogy for masses of people in this country and all over the world as they look to understand people of color through the politics of difference.

One commenter referred to Africa as a “fantastic blank canvas for gaming history to write on.” That’s precisely the concern. Research has shown that those in the West have many misconceptions about Africa and other black countries. (Authors like Charlayne Hunter-Gault have worked to dispel them, but there’s a lot more work to do.) So, while it is good that game companies are taking note of black nations, we can’t ignore what the games they make are (and aren’t) contributing to the process of helping the world better understand those places and peoples.

Perhaps (as some have suggested in comments) this is all part of a difficult growing process that will lead to real parity. I, for one, certainly hope so. But that does not mean the impact of games on black people should not be interrogated, discussed, and criticized. And I’m happy to add my voice to that conversation.

Blackface Goes HD? The Case of Resident Evil 5

OK, we all know zombies gotta die. And I loved Resident Evil 4. So why do these early images from the next installment of the Resident Evil franchise make me so queasy?

After all, in RE4, you spend the game shooting equally out-of-their-mind Spaniards. But, then, the Spanish haven’t been so egregiously misrepresented as blacks through the ages, have they? Not even close.

From Birth of a Nation to Black Hawk Down, black folk are apparently responsible for some of the most mindless and evil activities you got. Rape, murder, satanic voodoo. With bulging eyes, simian super strength, and a room temperature IQ, we’ve been portrayed as savages beyond redemption. So, when we see images like these, it doesn’t just resonate with the long lived zombie genre, it also triggers memories of so many awful stereotypes — and what those stereotypes have been used to justify past and present. Put down the crazed negroes before they take the white women! And so on…

But perhaps the most troubling part is that these scenes seem to be set in Africa; the “dark continent.” With all the positive steps being taken of late to raise awareness of the good things happening in Africa as well as the urgent need in some parts of the continent, we really can’t afford this kind of step back. We need to find ways to humanize Africans, not dehumanize them.

George Romero’s genre-defining 1968 film Night of the Living Dead is often read as a black empowerment tale. It’s ironic, then, that 40 years later, the preeminent zombie franchise appears poised to give us just the opposite. If LocoRoco’s Mojas were a kind of high tech blackface, Resident Evil 5 takes blackface into the HD era. It’s horror alright, just not the kind Capcom intended.

Find more history of black characters in games at The First 11 Black Videogame Stars. And the full trailer for RE5 at Gamersyde.

 Follow-up post Race in Games: Culture, Context, and Controversy

Thanks to those who have posted thoughtful responses. My main concern here is really for the perception of black countries. Over the years, many of them have been portrayed as uncivilized and recently a good deal has been done to change that thinking (particularly in Africa). But there’s still a lot more work to do.

I do understand the characters presented in the trailer are zombies. Still, I find the proximity of those zombies to old school long lived black stereotypes alarming. And that’s what my post is about.

So, perhaps the deeper question is: How are black countries and those who live in them portrayed in games now? How have they been portrayed in the popular media and movies? Is it on par with other peoples and places in the world? If so, maybe it is time for a game like this. If not, then how do we respond?

Note to commenters: I will delete your comment for name calling or generally being obnoxious. I will not delete your comment for disagreeing with me.

Mushroom Clown: Nuclear Destruction and Fun

See the clown face in that mushroom cloud? Ironic, no? Mixing childhood smiles and nuclear detonation to hock Playstaton 3. We’re supposed to read it as “atomic fun” but I can’t help but see it as a perverse commentary: laughter at death. Sexy bombs, slick fun, sick stomach.

Many who encounter “Mushroom Clown,” though, seem to focus on the (admittedly impressive) art direction rather than the twisted irony of its message (see discussion at aotw). And I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, “weapons of mass destruction” is part of our daily vocabulary now — more a slogan than anything real. What those weapons do to people seems an afterthought.

As a lover of unusual games, I very much want to see the industry push the envelope in every way imaginable. And sometimes that means offending folks. But Sony could have done better. Games like DEFCON and Balance of Power, for example, let us use nukes without ever letting us forget the damage they do. The specter of nuclear winter hangs over both in very different but equally potent ways. That’s important stuff.

It’s easy to trivialize nuclear war. It’s art to make it matter. Sony should learn from its mistakes.

Who Won E3? Think Small…

You know the good E3 presentations by the number of times you reach in vain for the rewind button. And, going in this year, it was hard to tell who would have us wishing for it most. Each of the big three seemed like they could have a trick or two up their sleeve. But, given recent history, we were most excited to see what Nintendo might reveal. Ooops!

Sadly, Nintendo’s big bang involved spending a good 15 minutes of Miyamoto prime time on Wii Fit, a balance board peripheral and exercise game that don’t seem to make fitness very fun. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the game isn’t even coming to the US this year (and it’s going to be expensive when it does). I might have wanted to rewind a little for Phantom Hourglass, but I desperately wanted to fast forward Miyamoto. And that’s sad. A fanboy friend sleeping off a cold put it this way:

I awoke from my nap . . . from a sweaty, feverish sleep and thought “oh, maybe the Nintendo press conference didn’t really happen!” But then I saddened as I remembered every last horrible detail about it.

Then there was Microsoft. After the hype of the mystery Xbox 360 SKU dissolved into a uninspired green case, Microsoft’s biggest surprise seemed to be Mass Effect FMV. More epic, more aliens, more testosterone from Microsoft? Who would have guessed? Even Peter Moore rocking out with Harmonix couldn’t get the rewind masher going. And I love those folks. Zero rewinds (but no fast forwards, either). Just what we expected and no more.

The really big surprise, then, was that Sony came out swinging with… downloads? That Home business might still wreak of Second Life ghost town, but their downloadable games are starting to rock. Most notably Echochrome, a lo-fi puzzler by way of MC Escher. You’re charged with getting a stick man from one end of a warped cubic landscape to another, the twist being that one can overcome obstacles (a pit, say) by rotating the camera to the point where that obstacle is occluded, essentially changing the nature of the illusion.

Echochrome, followed by Wipeout HD and Pain, made me ever so slightly less nauseated by Phil Harrison. And that’s saying something. Put those alongside Little Big Planet and I may end up buying a PS3 after all. Three rewinds, one fast forward (Chewbacca?!), and the best showing of E3.

Who would have guessed after all its recent cluelessness and consistent spec screaming that Sony would win E3 on a few small games with big ideas? But that’s just what happened.

Update: Parish says Wii Fit is actually good stuff in spite of Nintendo’s awful presentation. Let’s hope so. Better a botched press conference than a botched product.

images grabbed from joystiq, ign, and gamescore

Gummy Bear Genocide

What does it mean when genocide becomes a punch line? Lately, we’ve had a bunch of opportunities to find out. Example 1: Monday’s Attack of the Show starts off funny enough, as an unsuspecting gummy bear is dumped into potassium chloride and an impressive chemical reaction follows. Jokes all around. “We can hear your screams.” And, honestly, the gurgling in the video doesn’t sound too far from it. Giggles.

Then it gets interesting. Host Kevin Pereira goes on about powering cars with the chemical reaction: “Screw the Prius, why can’t I run my car on that?” [more banter] “Running your car on gummy bears would be just like, well, genocide.” Uhm. Still funny, or did we just get a little sick?

Want more? Have a look at the review of Lost Planet in February’s Wired:

In the opening scenes of the gorgeous sci-fi actioner, a green-eyed alien or some such has killed your father and you’re ticked off about it. Vent your wrath by going genocidal on an army of insectoids straight out of Starship Troopers.

Then there’s the Zombie Genocider achievement in Dead Rising. Edge picked up on that, calling Dead Rising its “favorite zombie genocider.” And so on.

I know it’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek. Hell, maybe it’s a coping strategy. Still, I can’t seem to find the word genocide amusing in any context. And I find it particularly sickening considering there’s a genocide going on this instant. Not to mention all those in recent memory: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo.

Let’s be clear: these are largely good folks. (Any channel that shows Ninja Warrior can’t be all bad, for instance.) Being a tech person myself, I typically find the folks in my field more thoughtful than most. Still, when I hear talk like this, it really makes me wonder if we are quite as in touch with the difficult things that are happening in the world as we should be.

And, to some degree, we should be thankful for that. Most of us don’t have contact with genocide beyond the headlines. But imagine how those who aren’t so lucky might feel on hearing it used as a punchline. Every once in a while, we need a reminder.

So, that’s how I spent my Fourth of July. Giving thanks that we are to live in a country where large scale horror doesn’t visit us daily. And remembering that we need to do more to change things for those who don’t share our fortune.

image grabbed from wikipedia

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