Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Movies I Grew Up On: Batman

This movie is a strange, but fond Christmas memory of mine.  I remember my family had went up to Canada to visit my grandparents and other family on my dad's side and someone got the VHS of Batman, so we watched that together.  This was the first Batman movie in 23 years and decidedly darker than the so very awesome Adam West Batman.  Unlike the even darker and more "realistic" Christopher Nolan, Tim Burton still embraced the comic book source material and kept the characters fairly faithful (e.g. Joker wasn't just a crazy killer, but wanted everyone to die laughing/smiling).  It stars Michael Keaton as Batman, who in my mind is the best Batman, but not a fantastic Bruce Wayne.  It's also the the only Batman movie to only have a single villain (which really should be the norm for comic book movies, not the exception).

If you haven't seen it, this movie serves as both an origin for Batman and the Joker.  Jack Napier, second in command to Gotham's current crime lord, is set up to take a fall during a crime at the Axis Chemical factory.  While trying to stop the criminals, Jack falls into a vat of chemicals, partly due to Batman.  Instead of dying from the chemicals, Jack Napier is instead transformed into a deranged killer who uses chemicals in every day hygiene products to cause people to laugh to death.  Things escalate to a very climactic fight up at the top of a cathedral bell tower.

Unfortunately, this movie starts the trend of comic book movie villains dying in their first (and only) movie appearance.  I'm not talking about random villains created specifically for that movie (like the Superman movies), but one of the villains from the hero's gallery of villains.  I've never quite understood this since not only do the heroes only have a small number of villains that could actually hold up a movie by themselves, but usually the villains they do kill (like The Joker) have so many more stories that could be explored and character depth that could be done.  This can only lead to more future reboots that (for some reason) must retell the hero's origin story again and again.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Video Game vs. Book Sizes

I forget where this thought came from, but I started thinking about how the various ways video games are released (full releases, expansions, DLC, etc.) are akin to how books are categorized by length (short story, novella, novels, etc.).  Some of them are pretty obvious, a full video game release is just like a novel: it can both build a new world, create grand adventures for a set of characters (generally recurring characters in future sequels), and has multiple ups and downs as well as conflicts (albeit one main one).  Expansions are like novellas: the are generally smaller adventures with the same characters that have already been setup in the full game/novel, only have time for one real conflict, and don't really have time to do much world building.

DLC, on the other hand, seems to come in two forms.  It's either like reading the same book, but with a different font (the main content is no different, but there's at least one minor difference to how that content is experienced).  In DLC forms, this is the new weapon/armor/skin.  The other type of DLC is more like a short story.  It is generally a new small adventure for the characters you know and love in an already established universe.  I haven't seen any DLCs that are the other form, where it's a whole new set of characters used to build the world/universe further, except for maybe Bioshock 2's Minerva's Den.  I can partly understand this because where a short story only needs to reference things from the world it comes from, DLC has to use the same technology (and generally art assets) made to use the game it's a part of.  So the easiest way to make DLC is just to make more of the same thing as the original game.

What I haven't quite figured out is what (if any) equivalent there is to smaller full games (i.e. PSN/XBLA games).  Would this be like a magazine article?  Just sort of a small way to amuse yourself for a bit of time, but generally no real substance to it?  Obviously there are exceptions on both ends of this analogy.  Not sure what else it could be.  I'm also curious what the visual media (movies, television, etc.) compare to these.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Where'd My Teammates Go?

If you've ever played a turn based RPG, like Chrono Trigger or one of the Final Fantasies, or any Bioware game, you've noticed how in the story parts there will be a large group of characters wandering around and saving the world together, but during battle only a few of them seem to actually be there.  Some games specifically showcase this by having the other characters walk in and out of your main character to exit and enter story sequences.  I understand that balancing battles for giant groups of heroes is way too much to ask for, but this is definitely bizarre video game logic at its worst (finest?).  If the other party members are waiting in camp until you take them in to battle, then does that mean that they shouldn't get any credit for saving the world since they spent the entire time lounging about in your posh headquarters?

Sometimes (rarely), games will help alleviate this ridiculousness by having your characters split up into teams.  Final Fantasy 3/6 did every once in awhile (which actually kept me from winning since I was required to use characters I hadn't been using at all).  One of the few good things Infinite Undiscovery did was the occasional instance where this happened and you either fought along side your groups or traveled through a tower seeing them appear on the other side of fenced off areas or coming in the middle of a boss fight from a different entrance.  So I only personally cared about the three characters on my team, but it at least felt like I was a troop trying to save the world.

Other than bizarre story logic issues this represents, my issue with this concept is that I have to choose which companions are important to me and miss out on a lot of good moments/stories (protagonist & companion content, companion & companion combination content, etc.).  This is a way to add replayability, but assuming there are 6 companions (generally there are more) and you can only bring 2 with you at once, then you'd have to beat the game 3 times and probably 70-80% of the content is the same each time.  That's not enjoyable, that's tedious.  This essentially means to me that all having more companions does for me is increase the chances that I'll like the two characters I decide to play through the game with and the other characters might as well not exist other than the occasional parts of the story you're forced to go bring them with you.

The only way I can think of to fix this is to structure the game where you travel with a small group of characters for a bit and then leave them and move on to another group.  Of course, this means that I have less chance of liking the characters I'm grouped I guess I just can't be pleased with this bit of bizarre video game logic.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Gargoyle's Quest

It's strange that Firebrand (the gargoyle pictured on the box) is green since the game, Gargoyle's Quest, is all about becoming the Red Blaze.  Gargoyle's Quest was one of the early Gameboy games I played on that system and had quite a bit of depth to it, alongside some very punishingly difficult gameplay.  The difficulty isn't too surprising when you realize that Firebrand is actually one of the enemies from the Ghosts 'n Goblins game that was known for its difficulty and lack of mercy for the player.

In Gargoyle's Quest, players take on the role of Firebrand the Gargoyle in his quest to get more powerful and save the Ghoul Realm from King Breager and his army of Destroyers.  The game has two modes: an overhead map with potential random battle sequences and side scrolling levels to fight monsters and collect items.  Many items you collect improve Firebrand's abilities - they may let him shoot stronger fireballs, jump higher, fly longer, or extend his health to another hit or two.  Levels can be played multiple times or exited by reaching either end of it (just like in Legend of Zelda II).  Like Metroid games, you may have to replay a level after getting a new ability so you can reach new places.

I haven't played this game in ages, but I'm pretty sure it would be super frustrating since it's generally not clear where exactly you need to go (without those handy Nintendo Power maps/guides I had as a kid) and the random battles will inevitably get you killed since this game requires Mega Man level precision, you can only take a few hits before dying, and if I remember right, health recovery items and extra lives were hard to come by.  But there's something to be said about that type of difficulty since, when I did finally beat the game, the feeling of accomplishment can't be beat.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Random Consequences In Game

As my final single player Xbox games in my game backlog, I'm finishing up Infinite Undiscovery.  I only paid $10 for this, so I'm not too miffed that it starts out as a very generic JRPG and the game only gets more frustrating as it goes on.  One odd game design decision that's bugging me the most is a very strange choice to punish players for trying to play the game.  The game is an action RPG with large areas filled with wild monsters to fight.  Fighting those monsters makes your characters stronger.  Most of your characters' abilities are powered by the moon.  At a certain point in the game, the moon starts raining lunar rays on the world while you're exploring.  Exposure to this lunar rain makes your characters more powerful until they have too much power to control and turn into monsters.  You have a few ways to combat this, so it wouldn't be so bad except for one thing: the lunar rain occurs at random times for random intervals.

So it may be that you can fight monsters for awhile before having to run from the lunar rain.  Or it may never stop raining because a random chance has decreed it.  Unfortunately, if you find yourself underpowered in a section, the only way to get better is to fight monsters.  So there's a random chance that doing what you need to will be impossible without having to lose and fight your own teammates.  This bizarre problem that has repeatedly made me just run blindly through areas is made worse by the fact that you can't seem to tell your teammates to run blindly like you do.  You can set them to a non-aggressive mode where they won't attack, but at they'll inevitably get hit a few times when running past monsters and will then stop to heal themselves, only to end up getting killed because they decided to stop.

So, I guess the takeaway from this is if you're going to have some (potentially) interesting pressure put on the player, make sure it doesn't conflict with the main gameplay element of the game making them not want to play the main gameplay element (and thus the game itself).  Or at least make sure that their method of avoiding that main gameplay element doesn't have annoying detriments of its own.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: The Colony

I seem to be on a post-apocalyptic rebuild humanity thing now, what with Last of Us, Survivors, and now The Colony.  The Colony is a "reality" experiment about a group of 7-10 people surviving in a world after a virus has wiped out most of humanity.  Since that hasn't actually happened, it's really just people relegated to a portion of some desolated town with broken down buildings, cars, and other debris.

They use whatever they can scavenge from designated areas to help them get fire, water, food, and power.  When they start getting really comfortable, they tend to pick random projects to work on to help with morale (like building a record player).  Every once in awhile, various "attacks" on the colony are staged by marauders.  In the first season, these marauders weren't supposed to actually make any physical contact with the colony (although the colonists didn't know that), so most fights were more verbal yelling matches than anything, but the second season that limitation seems to be gone because the group gets beat up by a militia in the second episode.

While the general concepts and most of what happens seems more realistic than some of how society is portrayed 15-20 years later in Revolutions and The Last of Us, there's also a lot of events that are a little too convenient on the show (Finding brand new tools in the building you're told to find shelter in?  Sure...).  I'm sure some of this is for legal or realistic reasons (since a virus has not wiped out most of humanity the colonists certainly have to follow certain rules like staying in designated areas) and some are to make it an interesting/educational show (the aforementioned brand new tools or when they find a large set of absolutely flawless solar panels).  But despite this, it's an interesting show with enough random little educational tidbits (it is a Discovery Channel show after all) and "expert" tips/advice (the psychologist constantly telling the audience why the colonists are acting like this is all real) to keep it entertaining.  The second season is definitely a lot more disturbing than the first, though, since the marauders seem to have more free reign for their attacks.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: The A-Team

One of my other favorite TV shows growing up was The A-Team.  The premise was fairly simple: a crack special forces team was framed for a crime they didn't commit and are wanted by the military police.  While they try to clear their name, they live as soldiers of fortune for anyone with a worthy cause (and usually some sort of payment).  Most episodes are them trying to help the little guy who is being overwhelmed by greedy corporations, landowners, rival companies, etc. and won't or can't stoop to the levels of the bad guys.  Because this show was made in the 80's, it's pretty darn black and white: there are clear good guys and clear bad guys with not many plot twists.  But honestly, that's part of what I love about it so much.  That and the fact that no matter how horrendous a car/helicopter/plane crash is, everyone gets out of it just slightly bruised and sore, even the bad guys.  Also, no one ever gets shot by all the ridiculous amount of gunfire that goes on unless it's an important part of the plot.

What made the show so wonderful was the four main characters: John "Hannibal" Smith (the brain who concocts all their wild schemes and love it when plans come together); Templeton "Faceman" Peck (the pretty boy con artist who could talk anyone out of everything the had and almost always got the girl in the end); Bosco "Bad Attitude" Baracus (the muscle and wheel man on the crew, who had a heart of gold if you weren't Murdock); H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock (the pilot who is declared insane, but always makes you wonder if he truly is).  Most episodes focused on the four of them together, but occasionally there'd be an episode that focused specifically on one of them for character development.  Almost every episode also went the same way - starts off showing someone in trouble, who then goes on a long and seemingly ridiculous quest (or so we're told) to find the A-Team, the A-Team reveals themselves to the bad guys in a show of force, the bad guys push back harder, the A-Team starts welding/building/constructing as part of "the plan", the A-Team is successful after a large fight with at least one vehicle flipped over, everyone lives happily ever after (except the bad guys).

This ridiculous, over the top, and completely unrealistic action is precisely why I was afraid of a modern day movie version of The A-Team (since so many directors/writers nowadays need everything to be dark, gritty, and super realistic), but as it turns out, the people who made that movie got it and it was a wonderful homage to this glorious TV show.  If you have never seen this show, I would highly recommend it, but just like with MacGyver, don't expect to take anything even remotely seriously and don't expect any amazing plot twists or you'll be disappointed.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: Whodunnit?

The summer is a strange period where there are more people with free time, but significantly lacking quality new media.  Movies seem to know how to take advantage of this, but for some reason, there's an incredible lull in new games and new television and generally what is released is pretty terrible (with a few notable exceptions).  The summer seems to be a good time for TV producers to test out their unique reality TV show ideas like The Mole, Pirate Master, and this season's show, Whodunnit.

The premise of the show is one of those murder mystery parties/dinner theaters with a reality competition laid on top of it.  Each episode, there is a murder.  The contestants must try to piece together the murder.  Each one can choose to investigate the crime scene, the morgue, or the last known location the person was before the murder.  Since no contestant can be in all three places, some information must be shared, but the murderer is among them, so it's hard to tell who to trust.  Not to mention that they are all competing to be the final contestant "left alive".  After the investigation, everyone is given a riddle (a la Treasure Hunters), whose solution will lead to one more clue to how the murder occurred.  Then in a confessional, the contestants lay out their theory of how the crime took place and who the murderer is.  The two contestants whose theories were furthest from what happened become marked, with one of them becoming the murder victim for the next episode.

It's a really interesting premise for a show, but it definitely is pretty darn awkward.  The deaths are so blatantly fake that the contestants even remotely acting like any of it is real is really just insulting to their (and our) intelligence.  One contestant convulses on some wet ground as a cut, sparking wire lays on the ground kind of near her, but clearly not touching the water; one contestant on fire runs outside and jumps in a pool and somehow instantly drowns?; one contestant "conveniently" needs to go to the kitchen because their meal wasn't cooked like everyone else's and gets "attacked" by a mountain lion?  I'm pretty sure everyone knows how murder mysteries are supposed to be, so acting like it's real when there's no real effort made to make it appear real is just strange.  The confessionals where the contestants lay out their theory about the murder are just terribly acted (I'm sure the people had fun doing them, but over the top doesn't begin to describe it).

The other annoying part is that it's a lot like the Sherlock Holmes books, in that, as the viewer, there is no way for us to really play along or figure out anything ahead of time.  The riddles are more like scavenger hunts and all the contestants seem pretty stupid, so it honestly could be any of them, but despite that, there is some part of me that wants to keep watching.  Maybe part of me is hoping it'll turn out like the murder mystery episode of Saved by the Bell where there will be a twist of epic proportions part way through, but most likely this will just be a show that was much better in concept than in production.  Really, it's just making me more upset that Treasure Hunters never got another season...

Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: The Perfect Heist

Yet another of the games I've backed on Kickstarter has arrived, this time it's The Perfect Heist.  On the surface, this is a heist movie flavored Munchkin, but after playing it, you'll realize that it's much more than just that.  Players cooperate or compete in various heists to earn Notoriety points.  The game ends when any player has been involved in a certain number of successful heists and at that point, the player with the most Notoriety points wins.  Each heist has a difficulty rating (that also determines how many Notoriety points it's worth).  Players build an Ability deck with a series of traits (Quick Thinking, Pyromaniac, Brute, etc.), weapons (brass knuckles, guns, flamethrowers, etc.), kit items (rope, ladders, high tech cameras, etc.), and a specialty (Driver, Gunman, Technician, etc.) to improve their ability to tackle the more difficult heists.  If a heist is too difficult for a player, they can recruit other players to join them on the heist by offering them a cut of the loot or Notoriety points the heist gives them or cards they already have.  Other players (even ones on the heist) can try to sabotage the heist to make them fail.  If a heist fails, the leader of the crew (the player who started the heist) has a chance to escape (by rolling a die) and if that fails, the player(s) with the least amount of Notoriety get to take some of their cards.

The part that makes The Perfect Heist so much more fun than Munchkin are the History cards.  History cards give you a special advantage targeted at one other player (e.g. your Sabotage cards are more effective against the targeted player), but the fun part is that you start to build a story between you and that other player.  Maybe that other player left you for dead.  Further twist, maybe that player was also your ex!  Further twist, you were family members with another player who was cuckolded by your ex who left you for dead!  As the game goes on and you play more and more of these History card, the story developed by them just gets more and more entertaining.  The game is for 3-6 players and technically you are supposed to only play History cards with the players sitting to your right and left, but if you can manage to keep track of how the various game rules affect you, there's no reason why you can't build an intricate web of ridiculous backstories with all the other players.

This game is easily worth the $35 it costs on their website, even if you don't care about your games building their own story, but for people like me who love it when a ridiculous story develops while you're out-negotiating and out-thinking your friends, this game is fantastic!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: MacGyver

One of my all-time favorite TV shows is MacGyver. For those of you who haven't seen the show (who should remedy that as soon as possible - let me know and I'll lend you the DVDs), the show is about this mulleted guy, MacGyver, who solves problems in creative ways.  For example, during a car chase, he realizes the brake line has been cut, so the person he's with takes the wheel, he gets on the hood of the car and uses a pen's spring and tube to fix the problem.  His fixes always have two things in common, they use whatever stuff he happens to find around him or bring with him (he's a live action point-and-click adventure game character!) and the solution is always very short term (usually just to escape the people chasing him or get out of the room he's been locked in).

In the first few seasons, MacGyver is a "problem solver" for the government.  Really, that's the job title he tells everyone.  So most episodes involve him going to different countries to try to stop some big conspiracy, save some third world country from itself, or do other Mission Impossible style hijinks.  Occasionally, his buddy, Jack, will get him into trouble with some new get rich quick scheme.  Sometimes, a world class assassin, Murdoc, will be either assigned to kill him or trying to get revenge for the last time he failed (these are always the best episodes!).  Eventually, MacGyver gets hired by the Phoenix Foundation, which is much more about saving the world through the environment, so he starts taking on the big, evil corporations.  By the end of the series, he's a huge environmentalist, health nut, hippie type character, which is especially funny because in the pilot he smokes some cigarettes to get past some lasers (of course) and there's no way the character at the end of the show would do that, so it's funny to see how much the character changed without any mention of these changes.  He's always represented as he always was how he currently appears.  So according to the end of the series MacGyver, he was always a health nut environmentalist.

Another funny change the show took is that the pilot clearly wanted to represent his clever solutions to things as more realistic and even very scientific.  He plugged up a leaking vat of sulfuric acid with a chocolate bar he had with him and while he was doing this, he was explaining the science behind why chocolate could be used this way.  As the show went on, the solutions and escapades became more and more ridiculous, from being transported back in time to King Arthur's days and basically having a Yankee in King Arthur's Court episode or to using a giant punch board computer from Atlantis (which was really just a giant tumbler lock and not a computer at all).  But it's still a great show, as long as you never ever take one minute of it seriously.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Scottish Games

I went to a Celtic festival this weekend and saw the caber toss, the sheaf toss, and the weight throw.  They all had the same thing in common, very simple game design.  Toss something heavy around better than other people can throw it around.  There's actually more complexity than that in the scoring of the caber toss, but I feel like that was developed over the years that caber tossing has been a thing.  For two of those games, it makes sense where the idea came from.  People bored on the job develop some strange competition to try to wile away the hours of mindless manual labor, so they bet on who can throw things farther.  But how the idea of throwing a giant log end over end came to be is beyond me.

Supposedly, people would toss logs over narrow chasms to cross them, but that doesn't really make any sense because that would require a lot more accuracy than caber toss does since you'd have to make sure it flipped on your side of the chasm or you'd lose your log.  Unless Scottish people were constantly needing new and interesting bridges across chasms, I don't see this happening often enough for anyone to really be as skilled as caber tossers are.  But what do I know?  I wasn't alive back then.  It is interesting that there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer to how this game came to be.  It also goes to show that random contests you have with your friends may last the ages and become a world-wide phenomenon!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Despicable Me 2

The world needs more minions.  Fortunately, Despicable Me 2 has them all over the place.  Admittedly, the movie is mostly about Gru and his quest to discover the identity of another villain threatening to destroy the world and stop them.  However, the movie does a great job of alternating between silly scenes involving the Minions, scenes that move the plot along, and scenes filled with zany supervillain antics.  The three girls that the plot revolved around the first Despicable Me are no longer the focus.

As well as trying to find and stop the mysterious other supervillain, Gru has to deal with both a neighbor and his daughters trying to set him up with single women, and trying to stop his eldest daughter, Margo, from seeing a boy.  It is a kid's movie, so the actual plot is fairly predictable, but the humor in the movie is top notch.  Even the obligatory fart joke is funny (someone gets a 21 fart-gun salute at one point).  But by far, the end of the movie is, in my opinion, the best movie ending ever.  I haven't laughed that hard and that long in a long, long time.  Because of this, I'm not too surprised that there's going to be a movie focused solely on The Minions.  I am curious how the dialogue in that movie is going to work, though...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Secret of Evermore

A sequel to Secret of Mana in name and gameplay only, Secret of Evermore was a much more bizarre, but much more unique action RPG I played growing up.  The game starts in Podunk, USA in 1995.  A kid chases after his dog (who is chasing after a cat) and ends up in an abandoned mansion.  Inside, they find a large and strange machine.  The dog starts chewing on some wires, which causes the machinery to activate and send the pair into a strange space station where they are attacked by robots until they get in an escape pod that launches them down to the planet below.  The area they land in looks a lot more prehistoric than the space station they were just on (including some raptors!) and the boy's dog has suddenly changed into a large wolf-beast.  Thus begins their odd adventure to get back home.

Secret of Evermore was awesome mostly due to the incredibly varied settings (you go from prehistoric, through an Ancient Greece/Egypt like area, to a Medieval-era area, back to sci-fi) that each change the dog, the currency, and the enemies.  The game functions very similarly to Secret of Mana (only single player), but instead of magic, there is alchemy.  You must find the right components to use your abilities now, but they level up with use, just like in Secret of Mana, so there's even more grinding (which I found enjoyable as a kid, not sure if I could handle it now).  There is also a marketplace where I specifically remember having to trade the right items to the right shopkeepers in the right order to get very awesome and rare items.  Figuring out that pattern was pretty fun (I think later I had help from Nintendo Power).  I remember the bosses being pretty darn awesome, too (especially the one seen on the cover).  Though the music wasn't as good as Secret of Mana or Chrono Trigger, it was still pretty awesome, as well.  What I didn't know until today is just how bizarre and creepy the commercial for the game was.  I'm pretty sure the dog never threw up the other versions of itself like in that commercial...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: Boss Monster

Some of the Kickstarter projects I backed have finally started getting their rewards fulfilled.  One of those projects is Boss Monster, a competitive dungeon crawler in reverse.  Players are monsters that compete to be The Boss Monster by building the attractive that both attracts and kills the most heroes from a nearby town.  Players can add rooms to their dungeon (up to 5 rooms max), build on top of existing rooms, or use spell cards that have an array of effects from killing monsters, to locking out a room in another player's dungeon.  Every turn new heroes arrive in town, then players can build on to their dungeon.  Then heroes will enter whichever dungeon is most interesting to them (each room has different treasure types that will attract different hero classes).  If the dungeon can deal enough damage to the hero, the player gets their soul (10 souls win the game).  If they can't kill the hero, the player gets a wound (5 wounds eliminates a player).

There's definitely a lot of strategy in this game that I'm still trying to master.  You don't want to attract heroes into your dungeon if you can't kill them, but a hero that's a wound for you isn't a point for another player.  Having a flexible dungeon that can change what hero type they are attracting can be useful to pull heroes away from another player, but that's not always easy to pull off.  Most games I played I somehow ended up with basically all the Mage related rooms so I ended up with lots of Spell cards, but could only really attract Mages.  But some of the Room and Spell card combinations can be a lot of fun to pull off regardless of how successful it is, like having one room deal a lot of damage and following it with the Minotaur's Lair that sends a hero back to that very room so even the most Epic of Heroes can't possibly survive.

If you can't tell from the box's art, this game is also chock full of retro gaming references from Double Dragon, to Ninja Gaiden, to Karnov.  Sadly, some of the most epic ones aren't available unless you backed the Kickstarter, like the golden Zelda cartridge style box sleeve.  But even without stuff like that, this is definitely a game worthy of getting for you and 1-3 other friends to compete against each other.