Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Adventures of Lolo

One of the earlier puzzle video games I played growing up was Adventures of Lolo for the NES.  Lolo's girlfriend, Lala, has been kidnapped by the evil King Egger (definitely a theme with NES games...) and Lolo must climb the 10 floors of the tower and defeat King Egger to save her.  Each room of the tower consists of a puzzle where Lolo must grab all the heart tokens without getting killed by Snakeys, Skulls, Almas, Medusas, Rockys, Leepers, Gols, or Don Medusas.  Some of these enemies kill Lolo with a touch, others merely block access to places.  Specific heart tokens will give Lolo the ability to shoot at enemies and encase them in eggs that he can safely push around (some enemies cannot be egged).  There are also tokens to make bridges over water (that Lolo can't cross otherwise) and hammers to remove a single obstacle per hammer.

Adventures of Lolo is still one of the few true action puzzle games I've played to date.  Portal and Portal 2 had moments here and there where timing was required, but not with enemies chasing you down (stupid Almas...).  Most other action games with "puzzles" are mostly just block puzzles where you need to put Crate A into Slot A and Box B into Slot B.  As a kid, I think I might have managed to get through maybe half of the game.  In college with an emulator and save states, I was able to beat the whole game.  Then, after college I managed to beat the game on the original system, but it's definitely a brain twister and a half.

Lolo got two more games after this and Lala was not only not captured in the third one, but you could play as her if you wanted.  I think my favorite part about Lolo and Lala is that they were enemies in Kirby's Dreamland and later became staple Kirby enemies named Lololo and Lalala.  Also, given their super simple geometric shapes, Lolo, Lala, Leeper, and Rocky were my first creations in a brief foray into sculpting I had a few years ago.

Kirby about to put the hurt on Lala

Monday, February 25, 2013

Instant Death

Time and again I've come across this game design decision that only makes sense in a few places and that concept is instant death.  Instant death comes in a lot of varieties: you touch the spikes in a Mega Man game (harsh but fits within the harshness of the game), you fall outside the world (necessary for play to continue even if it's a bit ridiculous), an enemy uses a spell on you that has a small chance of instantly wiping you out.  It's that last one that gives me the biggest problems, especially when there is no way to dodge said spell.

I can't come up with one legitimate reason why it would be okay that a random, unavoidable die roll could instantly bring your game to a halt.  It doesn't show skill on the computer's part.  Since the player can't do anything to stop it, it's not a test of skill for the player.  It's like creating a game where the end result is a die roll to determine who wins.  No one would want to play that game because player input isn't even needed.

The only two cases I can come up with where any instant death is viable is if you're building an arcade game or punishingly difficult game where the purpose of the game is to frustrate the player/make them die frequently or if a player falls down a pit or outside the world where there isn't a way to get back normally.  This last one is actually completely necessary because the alternative is to make the player wander around trying to figure out how to escape what is usually a bug in the level design and then either restart the game or (more likely) turn it off and never play again.  Sure it's frustrating to die because of this, but at least it's (usually) the player's fault for jumping in a pit.

Games that do have the instant kill spells/attacks generally give ways to minimize or eliminate the chances of the problem by giving equipment they can wear to make those never successful, but that's not fixing the problem.  That's working around the problem and taking up a valuable equipment slot the player could use to equip something that makes them feel awesome instead of wasting it on something to stop bad game design from killing them.  At that point, you might as well just eliminate that equipment slot and the instant kill attack at the same time and be done with it.  You've eliminated the interesting choice from the game for all players except for people who like to gamble with their chances of success.  If that is the purpose of adding instant death, then there are better ways to achieve it.  You could give the player the risky attack so it's their choice to use it or not.  You could add a casino to your game so players can get that feeling outside of the combat.

There are board games where the winner is decided by random luck like this (e.g. Candyland and Chutes and Ladders).  There's a reason people stop playing these games once they grow up a little.  Winning or losing a game through pure luck is not an enjoyable experience for anyone.  So eliminate the random chance and eliminate instant elimination.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Review: Better Off Ted

Better Off Ted is a sadly cancelled show that I didn't find out about until well too late that has now become one of my favorite TV show series.  The show takes place in a fictional company called Veridian Dynamics that builds...well...whatever the company feels like it needs, like exploding pumpkins, test tube grown beef, or bulletproof plates.  The show focuses on the head of the research department, Ted, his boss, Veronica, his co-worker/love interest, Linda, his daughter, Rose, and two of the greatest scientists ever, Phil and Lem.

Generally, each show involves some ridiculous research product, some life lesson for Ted, a hilarious commercial by Veridian Dynamics (even better than those commercials in RoboCop), and some wacky science gone wrong by Phil and Lem (who are totally not mad scientists...).  It's got big, evil, faceless corporation humor, odd couple humor, awkward romantic situation humor, and just sheer random humor all tossed in together.  If you have Netflix, I would highly recommend you watch this show, it's only 26 episodes.  I'll just leave you with a commercial for Veridian Dynamics:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Careers

One of the earlier board games with both choice and hidden goals that I played was a game called Careers.  The goal of the game is to get the right amount of Fame, Money, and Happiness that you wrote on your "Secret Formula" at the beginning of the game by going around the board traveling down various career paths such as Farming, Sea, Hollywood, etc.  Certain careers' squares were more geared towards one stat (Hollywood got you a lot of fame), so choosing the right career was an interesting and important choice in the game.  Most of these career paths have minimum requirements to enter (e.g. you need to have a certain degree by going through the College career path) and reward you for going through them multiple times.  Sometimes you would get Opportunity or Experience cards - akin to Monopoly's Chance and Community Chest cards - that let you either move a specific amount, bypass career requirements, or immediately go to a certain career.

As with most older board games, a lot of the game is determined by luck (if you don't land exactly at the start of a career path you want, you can't start going down that path), so I think it would be an interesting idea to revamp this game with a little less die rolling and a little more decision making.  The simplest way is my favorite method of replacing a die roll: a deck of cards numbered 1-6, every player has a hand of 3 cards or so and gets to decide which card to use to move forward, and then draws a new card.  It still has some elements of randomness that dice have, but it lets the player strategize a little more.  It would also be interesting to have some way to affect the other players.  I don't really remember there being any Opportunity or Experience cards that you could use on other players for example, but that might be interesting.

This definitely was an interesting game to play growing up that was one step more advanced than The Game of Life.  They are essentially the same game, but this has more interesting choices (if the die lets you have your way).  It was also an interesting way to teach young minds about potential career paths, the importance of going to college, and how it's okay to want no fame or money, but lots of happiness.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Die Hard - It's A Good Day To Die Hard

Apparently Die Hard 5 is yet another movie that proves to me that I never seem to agree with critics.  To me, Die Hard 5 solidifies the pattern that every other Die Hard movie is awesome.  None are as great as the first, but this one feels much more like a Die Hard movie than the previous installment: namely a terrorist plot with a clever twist, John McClane getting involved without meaning to, and even a few awesome homages to the original.

The action definitely is over the top, but not as completely ridiculous as Die Hard 4 where John jumps on to a jet and flies a car into a helicopter.  Also, John's partner in this outing, his estranged son, is equally capable of killing bad guys and being nigh invulnerable.  It's like what Indiana Jones 4 was going for with Indy Jr., but with someone that actually matches the father a little better.  Plus, no aliens in this one.  The bad guys aren't nearly as awesome or memorable as the Grubers and their crews, which is probably why this one isn't on par with 1 and 3, but they didn't bother me as much as Timothy Olyphant.

So with all that said, I'd say this Die Hard is ranked 3rd below 1 and 3 and above 4 and 2 and definitely worth a watch.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Gaming Confessions

I think every gamer has their embarrassing moments in their gaming history.  I've decided it's time to confess two of mine: I got a game over from the first Goomba in Super Mario Bros. and I was knocked out by Glass Joe in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.  Phew, that feels good.

I grew up watching my brothers play these games.  While I was out with the Boy's Brigade at my church for a couple hours, Adam would have played through Super Mario Bros. at least twice.  Although, I don't know if he ever actually beat Mike Tyson, Andrew would play Punch-Out all the time.  I had watched these two master all the difficult sections of the games, saw the strategies and solutions to all the game's puzzles and challenges.  I never actually played them myself until a few years into college.  When I finally decided I needed to play these games, I thought my foreknowledge would help me breeze through these games.  Apparently there's more to video games than just knowledge.

The experience with the Goomba was actually quite comical.  Life number 1 - I ran straight forward, didn't realize the Goomba was so close to the beginning and ran straight into him.  Life number 2 - I was totally ready.  I ran forward, thought I'd pull off my brother's move of hitting the coin block and killing the Goomba in one swoop, but instead jumped too early, hit the side of the coin block and ran straight into the Goomba upon hitting the ground.  Life number 3 - I was determined to pull this move off, ignoring the fact that this was the very first enemy and my very last life.  I managed to hit the coin block properly this time and scored my first points, but it was still just slightly too early and I again landed straight into the side of the Goomba and died.  Sometimes you're just so bad at a game, that it's more hilarious than it is frustrating.

The experience with Glass Joe wasn't as interesting a story.  It was just a series of failed dodges and slow punches that led to Little Mac's loss from one of video game history's easiest bad guys to beat.  Apparently you can't get muscle memory for timing from watching someone else play a game.  Who knew?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: StarTropics

Another game I love to replay from time to time is the game, StarTropics.  This game combined a tropical theme with a strange sci-fi theme and 2D overhead travel and puzzle solving with 2.5D action gameplay.  It also had an amazing soundtrack that matched the theme incredibly well.

One of the most memorable things about the original copy of the game is that it came with a letter that at a certain point in the game, you were told to dip in water to read a message required to progress further in the game.  Basically it was copyright protection, but along with the Monkey Island code wheel and Advanced Dungeon and Dragons journal copy protection it was one of my favorites.

In the game, you play as Mike who is looking for his uncle, Dr. Jones the archaeologist (I see what they did there...) who has mysteriously disappeared.  The journey to find your uncle takes you into the belly of a whale, through a booby-trapped shipwrecked pirate ship, and ultimately into a spaceship.  There are very interesting bosses, tough action, a lot of instant kill death traps that require skill to navigate, many hidden areas with secret goodies, and plenty of powerful items to help you survive.

I want to say I've only beaten this game once and I'm pretty sure that was with the use of an emulator's save states - it's a difficult game to say the least.  But it is well worth a play through, especially with a Nintendo Power map at your side as you play...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Review: Assassin's Creed 3

Another entry in a series of games where you get to relive bits of history through the lives of one secret organization (the Assassins) trying to stop another (the Templars) from taking control.  The III in Assassin's Creed III is more to indicate this is the third different era you are visiting rather than it being the third game in the series (much like how there are way more Kingdom Hearts games then the roman numerals would suggest).

Up until this game, I felt that every previous entry in the series improved on its predecessors in every single aspect.  Although this one definitely had some improvements and some awesome new gameplay mechanics, it also felt like a step back in many respects.  Most striking to me as a collector is that they made collecting everything almost as much a pain as it was in the original Assassin's Creed.

In every Assassin's Creed game, there are viewpoints (a.k.a. really tall buildings) you can climb to reveal large portions of each map.  In all the previous games, if you visit all the viewpoints, you reveal the entire map.  If you want to explore it on your own, you just don't climb the viewpoints.  In this one, the viewpoints only reveal about half of each map, meaning that you are required to wandering aimlessly through the unmapped regions to find out where stuff is.  This wouldn't be so bad except  only the smallest portion of the map around the player gets revealed as he wanders around.  Also, collectables' icons don't consistently appear on the map when you reveal the area around it.  Some of them inexplicably require you to walk right up to the collectible for its icon to appear on the map, but by that point you already know where it is since it's right in front of you so there is no need for the icon at all.  I guess they were trying to encourage more players to explore freely (since that can be fun), but they chose a very poor way to force every player to do so.  If a player wants to explore and uncover the map on their own, let them, but give the rest of us viewpoints to reveal it all.

Aside from that major downside and a number of relatively minor bugs (crowds disappearing right in front of you, one group of guards that will always get mad at you if you walk in front of them, and very poor lip syncing), there is a lot of good to this game.  Firstly, there is a lot to do in the game.  Naval missions (so much potential for its own game), hunting, cowboy checkers, bowls, courier missions, assassin missions, colony liberation, treasure hunts, building a town up out of a large plot of land and an old run-down manor, and on and on.  I clocked in just under 40 hours in the game when all was said and done and I try to be as quick and efficient with my time as possible (except for those first 3+ hours trying to beat the computer at Nine Man's Morris).  As always, the story in the game is top notch with a twist early on that caught me off guard (mostly because once I've decided I'm going to play a game, I refuse to read anything about it until I've beaten it).  I also feel like I understand the Revolutionary War and what led up to it a little better than I did from History class (to be fair that was my worst subject) even though I know there wasn't a grand conspiracy behind the whole thing...or was there?

As with Mass Effect 3, I can't recommend this game to someone new to the series (in this case I'm torn between saying start with the first or the second one) and if you have played the previous ones, then you're probably already planning on buying this or have already beaten it by this point.  This series is definitely one worth checking out if you're a fan of conspiracy stories, secret societies, and alternate history.  Or if you like messing with dumb guards.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Prototyping Benefits of a Zero-Sum Game

If you are designing a game where points or other resource quantities are involved, you may have realized the line you have to balance when prototyping it.  To save money, you may have printed/bought/gathered less tokens than you thought you needed and had to decide what happens when your playtesters ran out.  Was that an intentional part of the game?  How many tokens are the right amount?  Should you just print way too many and not let the players run out (which of course will be more expensive to prototype and ultimately make if you decide to sell it with too many tokens)?

One solution is to eliminate the bank entirely and divide the resources up at the start of the game.  Then players give and take resources from each other.  This is what is known as a zero-sum game because there is no total loss or gain of resources.  This has a number of benefits: it's much easier to figure out how many tokens the game will need so players generally have just enough or just shy of enough most of the game (depending on what you're going for), players end up balancing the game themselves by (usually) taking from the person winning and helping out people in last place (which is an interesting additional strategic choice for your players), and this dynamic balance should help people from getting an insurmountable lead from the other players.

Zero-Sum resources will drastically alter your game, though.  Imagine if the resources in Settler's of Catan didn't come from a bank of cards, but instead when you bought a road, you had to decide who would get your wood and clay.  That would shift the focus from trading resources directly (simple and intuitive) to bargaining for future resources (e.g. "I will give you this clay now if I get your ore when you buy a development card").  One of the biggest draws of Settler's of Catan is that it's very easy to learn and it's a big social game.  However, while resource trading is a positive thing (both parties get something they want), resource bargaining can be pretty negative (it's essentially begging and what happens if one person doesn't keep their end of the bargain?).

So as always, keep in mind what your goal is with the game and what you want your players to feel.  If your game is directly competitive (players should attack each other) and you're finding all your playtesters playing too nicely, then a zero-sum situation will help force them to attack each other since they have to take their resources/points/whatever from another player and start aggression.  If your game is meant to make or keep friendships alive, maybe this isn't the right thing for your game.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Q*Bert

One of my first biggest gaming mistakes was buying the game, Q*bert, for NES.  I don't remember how old I was, but I had a regular allowance and my parents had taught me how to keep a balance book of my money and how to save it (I think games like Dragon Warrior also helped).  I had finally saved enough money to buy my very first video game, my mom (lovingly) took me to Toys 'R Us, but back in those days there wasn't an internet filled with video game reviews, so all I had was a wall of video game box art and some minor information on the games.

I'm not sure what drew me to Q*bert, maybe it's that the main character looks like characters I would doodle, maybe I was just overwhelmed and grabbed a ticket for a game I could reach, or maybe I felt bad that the main character was getting killed on the cover.  Sadly, I wouldn't fare much better while playing the game.

The game takes place on an isometric colored pyramid.  Each time Q*bert jumps on to a different step, the color changes.  The goal is to color the entire pyramid a specific color.  Unfortunately, there are a few enemies - a springy snake, gremlins that change step colors, and purple creatures that jump on the wrong sides of the pyramid.  If you get trapped at the bottom, there are one time use spinning discs that will take you back up to the top of the pyramid.  It was a fairly typical high scoring, never ending, super skill game.  What makes the game a lot less fun than it could be is that the controls are super confusing.  Since the pyramid is on diagonals, it doesn't match up to an NES control pad that well.  It almost always cost at least one life to determine if down would go down left or down right or if up would go up left or up right.  This is even worse when you're panicking from all the monsters after you and things bouncing around.

I know my brothers gave me a hard time for buying this game and I think it was only played like 5 times total at my house, so not exactly a game worthy of being the first game I ever bought, but it was a great lesson in researching your purchases before making them.  I think that's a lesson that more people need to learn, especially before they get their hands on a credit card.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Darths and Droids

Have you ever wanted to combine Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars?  Or just very slowly make fun of all those little ridiculous logic flaws throughout the series?  That's where Darths and Droids come in.  Starting with Episode 1 and currently up to about 2/3 through Episode 4, Darths and Droids takes you through the Star Wars movie in comic book form, except all the characters are gamers playing an RPG campaign in a Star Wars setting.  But in their world, Star Wars never existed.  Basically it pokes fun at Star Wars, D&D, video gaming, and various other nerdy tropes in clever and hilarious ways.  It gets especially entertaining when they introduce new characters who haven't played D&D before (one is an actress, the other is a video gamer).  Also, the post after each comic usually has some good tips and ideas for potential or current DMs.  It's because of this webcomic that I can't help but call the Death Star the Peace Moon from now on.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes

Never before had Netflix suggested I would give a show 5 stars before The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.  I had seen suggested 4 and a bit stars, but never a full 5 stars.  So I decided to test Netflix and see what the big deal was.  A few days later I finished both seasons of this cartoon.

From the sound of it, there isn't anything new about this cartoon.  It revolves around a union of some of Earth's mightiest superheroes - starting with Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Wasp, and Ant/Giant Man and eventually adding Captain America, Black Panther, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Vision, as well as having many heroes in reserve.  These heroes fight bigger and badder super villains as the show progresses.  I think one of the things that really hooked me, though, is that very rarely would one episode be separate from others.  There was a wonderful feeling of continuity here.  There is always some bigger evil plan being worked upon in the background of each episode until it comes to a head and the heroes need to deal with it.

One of the reasons I knew this show was really good is that normally I will be doing something else while watching TV (unless the show is subtitled like Naruto) and the TV will be the lower priority task.  However, I constantly found myself just closing the lid of my computer or putting down the game system to just sit and watch this show.  Granted, I am a huge superhero nerd, but still, there is definitely something magical about this show.  It's got plenty of action, plenty of intrigue, and plenty of interpersonal drama.  And just like the movie based on The Avengers, it managed to make me really like The Hulk, which I always find an impressive feat.  So Netflix, good call on the 5 stars!