Friday, August 30, 2013

Gordon Ramsay Shows

I think I've said before that I get hooked to reality competition shows pretty easily.  Even when they're pretty bad.  So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that I keep finding myself watching Hell's Kitchen even though that show is not at all about the cooking or the competition, but purely about the drama, yelling, and cursing.  Supposedly, the earlier seasons were the reverse, but I haven't seen them to be able to tell.

Then when MasterChef came out a few years ago, I watched that and was pleasantly surprised that there was a severe lack of cursing and it actually seemed to be about the cooking and the competition.  Sadly, the more seasons the show has, the more it seems to be about the drama, so it's only a matter of time before it becomes as ridiculous as Hell's Kitchen.

When I started watching Netflix, one of the shows I watched on it was Kitchen Nightmares (the UK version).  Much like MasterChef, there wasn't nearly as much yelling and screaming as I expected and it honestly seemed to be about Gordon Ramsay actually helping people make their restaurants work again.  Sometimes, the owners would be stubborn (which always makes me wonder why they signed up to be on the show in the first place) and kind of warrant being yelled at.  But even the yelling was toned down and more normal than what happens on Hell's Kitchen.  I do believe that the American version isn't nearly as nice and involves much more yelling.

So it seems that eventually all Gordon Ramsay shows turn into yelling drama shows no matter how they start.  I'm not sure if this is Gordon Ramsay's doing, Fox's doing, or what, but it makes me kind of sad because all three of these shows started with interesting premises.  Hell's Kitchen is a competition to find a head chef by making cooks alternate between cooking individual dishes in challenges and serving meals to customers as a team for elimination.  MasterChef is essentially Top Chef, but with home chefs (i.e. not professionals) instead of real chefs.  Kitchen Nightmares is about trying to help a restaurant owner and their employees to figure out why their restaurant is failing and fix it.  I'll probably keep watching these shows and other Gordon Ramsay shows, but I really do wish they'd focus more on what made the shows good initially rather than making every show a screaming match.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

TV Shows I Grew Up On: Cartoon Planet

I was looking at some of my music to see if I could find some music I could write about for Blank I Grew Up On and I came across my three CDs based off of Cartoon Planet and decided to write about that instead solely because of pictured, Brak.  Cartoon Planet was a one hour block of old Hanna Barbera cartoons with hilarious and random clips between featuring Space Ghost, Zorak, and Brak.  For the younger folks, Space Ghost was a superhero from the 60's, Zorak and Brak were some of his villains.  Only, on Cartoon Planet, Zorak and Brak are prisoners of Space Ghosts and forced to help him host this show.  Oh, and Brak is a hilarious idiot.

The CDs were made up of audio versions of a lot of the songs and skits they would perform between cartoons.  These included songs like Brak wondering what day it is or how much he loves beans.  It's really hard to explain how awesome these songs and skits were (for the most part) because they all sound so stupid, but I think that's mostly what makes them so good.  It seems like the three voices behind the characters were just making stuff up and having fun with being ridiculous.  It's kind of like a comedy movie with a bunch of actors good at improv just having a good time.  Or, like the mind of Neil Flynn.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Review: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team

Unlike the Paper Mario series, the Mario & Luigi series seems to still be trying to follow Super Mario RPG in its gameplay and concepts.  The latest in the series is Mario & Luigi: Dream Team and is not only focused more heavily on Luigi, which is always awesome, but doesn't portray him as a weak coward like the previous Mario & Luigi and Luigi's Mansions games always portray him.  He's actually got quite a bit of courage this time around.  I also really appreciated the fact that Bowser ended up being the main bad guy and he and his minions were more competent than they have been in past Mario games.

This is a fairly long game.  Even though, I try to do everything in a game, I've always been fairly speedy at beating games and this took me a little less than 50 hours to beat.  There's quite a lot to do and nearly all of it is quite enjoyable.  Just like in Super Mario RPG, combat is a turn based system where correctly timed button presses can deal extra damage or avoid damage.  Unlike Super Mario RPG, it's possible to completely avoid taking damage from enemy attacks and in most cases counterattack the enemy and deal damage to them instead during their attacks.  The big difference between this game and other Mario & Luigi games is entering the Dream World through Luigi's dreams.  In the overworld, Mario and Luigi are separate characters, Mario controlled with A and Luigi with B.  In the Dream World, Dreamy Luigi combines with Mario to form one more powerful character.  This is good since the enemies in the Dream World come in hordes of 10-20 at a time.  It was actually pretty fun to have a mass of slightly weaker enemies to attack at once vs. the normal 3-5 enemies you normally face in these games.

Alongside the main quest, there are a plethora of side things to do.  You can look for and rescue all the Pi'illo people that have been trapped throughout the island, you can find all the beans hidden in the ground throughout the island, you can replay harder versions of boss fights to try to win some coins, you can take on the expert challenges (generally just getting Excellent on attacks and avoiding all damage from enemies), and you can challenge yourself to a high score mode for the special attacks (basically repeat a special attack endlessly until you kill enough enemies or screw up performing the special attack).  The item you get for completing all the expert challenges is well worth the time and effort it takes to get it, so I would recommend you try that, but the way the special attack challenges are done makes them not worth attempting.  Each challenge requires you to get over 800 points even though some attacks are much slower or more challenging, so getting that score will take you much longer and many failed attempts.  I personally did not find those fun in the slightest.  Really my only complaint about the game.

Along with a leveling system that has the same choice and risk of Super Mario RPG (you get to pick the stat you're boosting, but you have a spinner deciding what you get), the game also has equipment that not only boosts your stats, but also gives you some interesting benefits, like doubling your defense when you have low health, possibly stunning enemies, or giving you back your Bros. Points (basically magic points, mana points, energy, etc. for using special attacks) if you score Excellent on the attack.  By the end of the game I was just about invincible due to my combination of equipment.  However, I still had to be fairly good at learning the enemy attacks so I could dodge them.  So, I felt powerful, yet still challenged, which I think is how every good RPG should feel at the end.

So all in all, this is a quality game, very much worthy of following Super Mario RPG and trying to keep what that game did alive.  I do still miss the hidden coin blocks in the overworld, but I guess I can't have everything...

Friday, August 23, 2013

Choosing Random vs. Random Choice

A game design issue that I've been working and struggling with at my job lately is the difference between choosing to take a gamble that involves some random chance in it vs. having some outcome of the game be randomly selected for you.  The end result is going to be the same regardless of which way the game is designed, but it feels incredibly different from a player's point of view because in one case they get to choose to take a risk and in the other case, they have no choice and whether the end result is good or not, it doesn't feel as satisfying.

I'll give an example to make this a little clearer.  In the game I'm currently working on, there's a lot of hidden information.  So what information each player gets is very important and what they do with that information is the real crux of the game.  In the original design, one player moved pawns around and each turn, had a random chance of seeing what the other player did at those spots.  Having multiple pawns on the same spot would increase that random chance.  So, the "interesting" choice they had was how to allot their resources and hope for the best.  It turns out (unsurprisingly now that I look back at it) that this is really not fun to play.

The new design is to instead give the first player a bunch of false information along with information about what the other player is doing.  They can't tell the difference between false and real information, so the choice is still seemingly random, but the player gets to choose which information they think is real.  Eventually, the player should have enough information to start figuring out what the other player is doing and deduce their strategy and come up with a good counter strategy.  This makes it so the interesting choice is how to deal with the information you have and not how to hopefully get the right information.

A similar example of random choice is battle in the game of Risk.  You do get to choose where to attack, but the outcome is pretty much completely random, so even if your strategy is amazing or you have 99 times as many units as the other player, you can still lose because the dice hate you.  It's still important for the defender to have some method of surviving an attack, but at some point, the better strategy should be rewarded over the luckier player.  Of course, this is why the combat in my first board game took a long time to play because I eliminated random die rolling and had straight up math (attack vs. defense), which taught me a whole other lesson.  Still a balance I have yet to completely figure out.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Drakkhen

Drakkhen was one of the weirdest, yet interesting RPGs I played for the Super Nintendo growing up.  It's a "3D" "action" RPG where you create four characters, travel from castle to castle, carrying out quests for giant dragon princes/princesses, and fighting monsters.  I never finished the game because there was always one point I got to where I had no idea where to go to next.  I also don't know if I ever really understood any story there may or may not have been.

Traveling the overworld was along the XZ planes (no going up, only forward, backward, left, and right) and battles would take place in a brawler style view (you could travel around in all three dimensions in a fixed space).  Battle consisted of your characters kind of randomly milling around enemies, occasionally attack enemies whenever they felt like it, with maybe some strategy that I couldn't really figure out.

You could equip your characters with armor and weapons you find (which changed character appearances).  Generally, you'll find this equipment in the castles you can explore.  Speaking of exploring, the game lets you explore pretty much wherever you want from the get go, so you can very quickly get overwhelmed by the giant black cat heads that shoot laser beams from their eyes or constellations that come down to destroy you.  Like I said, a very weird game.  It had a much more normal and super awesome sequel, Dragon View, that I was never able to finish because every ROM I found of it would freeze in the same spot.  So basically, one series, two games, two games I was never able to beat.  Sad day.

Monday, August 19, 2013


It can be really overwhelming when staring at a wall of board games in a store and trying to figure out which ones are good.  It can also be a very expensive mistake to buy a game you don't like.  This is where web series like Wil Wheaton's TableTop come into play.  Every episode is the same format: different B-list celebrities play a board game with Wil Wheaton, hilarity ensues, a winner is declared, the losers mope on the loser's couch, and the winner gives a little speech.  It's very obvious that everyone involved has a lot of fun making this.

Watching the series is a great way to see how a game plays, how much story can be involved in a board game, and possibly find out about other celebrities you enjoy and should follow.  Each episode is 30 minutes or so (except for the extended ones that are an hour and a half each).  The first season is filled with games that all very shortly became available at Target (I'm not sure if they had a deal with Target or just good timing).  Of course, I'm sure all these games are available on Amazon as well.  Just keep in mind, I've noticed a number of times where they'll play the game slightly wrong.  Either a rule gets ignored or played differently.  I'm guessing this is to fit the format of the show or keep the game shorter.  During the extended episodes, you can see how the behind the scenes people make sure they're playing the game right.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Adding Spice To A Game

The most important thing when designing a game is to keep it simple and build slowly.  Start with the simplest possible set of rules, play it, if the game functions (and has a hint of fun), add or change one thing, repeat.  That is called iteration.  But how do you know what to add/change next?  Well that kind of depends on the state of the game.  If the game is horribly unbalanced, then focus on making the weaker player's game stronger (give them more advantages) or weakening the strong player (take away some of their advantage).  If the game isn't fun, then figure out where the fun got lost or where you think the interesting choices should be found and focus on those.  If the game is playing well, but it seems to be the same game for a player (that is, if there seems to be one optimal way to play the game), then it may be time to add another system or more options for the player to take.  No matter what you're adding, the important things are to start with the simplest and easiest to implement changes first and to try to avoid making special case rules for any part of the game.

If you can try a change without having to get new pieces or change game components, those should take precedence.  For example, changing balancing (e.g. how much damage something deals), changing what information each player has (e.g. whether cards are revealed at certain times or not), or changing game flow (e.g. players take turns simultaneously or alternately).  You should always keep in mind what future complicated systems/variations you want to add to the game (if you have pawns, maybe you would want special types of pawns) and add those in one at a time when the game is in a stable(ish) state.

Special case rules should be avoided in game design for the same reason that quick hack fixes should be avoided in programming.  Sure, you may fix that one weird case your playtesters found, but not only is that fix going to be hard to communicate to your players, but what if you missed other weird cases?  It's far better to try to figure out the root cause of the problem and simplify things where you can or maybe completely change how one part of your game works.  It's almost always better to simplify things to fix a problem than to add more systems to fix it.  As much as it may hurt sometimes, never be afraid to oversimplify things.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Super Mario RPG

Super Mario RPG is one of thee most memorable Super Nintendo experiences I had growing up.  Not only was it one of Square's numerous amazing RPGs of the era (I miss those days), but it was the first time that Bowser was a playable character.  It was also the rise of his occasional steps into being an antihero (usually only happens when someone else tries to take over the Mushroom Kingdom).

The basic premise of the game is Mario and crew trying to save the seven stars of Star Road that grant people's wishes from the evil Smithy and his gang.  On the way to victory, there are a ton of mini-games, hidden secrets, and an incredibly difficult optional boss.  While wandering around the world in an isometric view, Mario can jump around to climb platforms, hit ? blocks, and jump on enemies.  Whenever Mario makes contact with an enemy, the characters enter a turn based battle like most JRPGs of the time.  The difference (and the greatest thing this game added to the turn based RPG genre) was the ability to deal extra damage during attacks or dodge/lessen damage from incoming attacks with properly timed button presses.  For example, pushing A right before landing a Jump on an enemy will make Mario jump an extra time (and with certain special jump attacks, you can keep doing this until you mistime the button press).  This means that not only does the combat have strategy in it (the real purpose behind good turn based combat systems), but it also requires some dexterity to be fully effective.

This RPG spawned the Paper Mario series and the Mario & Luigi handheld RPG series.  The Mario & Luigi series seems to be able to hold its own, but the Paper Mario series seems to be declining in quality, but all of them have been lacking some of the magic of the original.  I'm not sure what exactly it is, probably the same magic that Square has lost since then.  Or it could just be nostalgia won't let me like anything as much as the original...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Dealing With Virtual Loss

I don't seem to deal well with losing characters in video games, even when it's fairly inevitable.  In any game with minions (Overlord, Pikmin, Little King's Story, etc.) or in games with permanent party member deaths (Fire Emblem, X-Com, etc.) I find myself constantly reloading and replaying sections whenever any of my group dies.  In some cases, like X-Com, this means I'm essentially cheating because I'm not really accepting the fate of my teammates, don't have to lose money in getting more teammates, and don't have to retrain new troops.  In other cases, it's just really frustrating (any of the bosses in Pikmin games since it's inevitable that some Pikmin will die).

My theory about why I can't handle loss is twofold: all other video games have taught me that dying means I failed at the game and also, I seem to get attached to things too easily.  Even with a troop of completely non-unique followers, I still can't stand to lose them, let alone if they're given names or have unique traits (like the super hilarious and awesome helmets the minions in Overlord would wear).  What really makes this hard is when there are statistics being kept of how many I've lost or the memorial to them.  There's no real game design problem with this, this is entirely a personal problem of mine.  So far, the only way I've been able to handle the loss is if I get sick of repeating the same thing over and over again.

All this is probably the same reason I don't like reading/watching/playing things where characters die, but at least when its the story that kills them off I had no control over it, so it can't be my fault.  I wonder if that's why I care so much...I feel like I got them, I'd never survive a zombie apocalypse, if I didn't get outright killed, I'd be consumed with guilt for anyone I couldn't save.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: Tomb Raider

It's been awhile since I was so incredibly surprised and pleased by just how good a game is.  I had heard good things about Tomb Raider before trying it, but I wasn't expecting it to get just about every game mechanic it had so very right.  The game has sneaking, shooting (if you fail sneaking), melee combat (if you fail shooting), item collection, exploration, upgrade-able skills, movie-level cutscenes and action sequences, and more.  It even managed to have quicktime events that I almost enjoyed!

If you've played any Uncharted games, the story will be very familiar, a group of archaeologists are looking for some location of legend, find it, get more than they bargain for, fight another group of people and the supernatural goings-on to try to survive and get back home.  To be fair, I'm pretty sure Tomb Raider had this story format first (and Indiana Jones before that), but there are definitely some game and story elements in the game I recognize from Uncharted.  It should also be noted, this is my first Tomb Raider game I've ever played.

The game is fairly linear in nature, but each area has a lot of rewards for exploring.  The few times the game makes you backtrack to previous areas there have either been major changes to the environment that makes it feel new or you have new abilities/gear that lets you access new areas and new secrets.  In each area with collectibles, there are one or two treasure maps that reveal the location of the other collectibles in the area.  You can also unlock an ability that lets you mark hidden collectibles on your map when you see them in Survival Instinct (like Batman's Detective Vision and Assassin's Creed's Eagle Vision).  You can also unlock a skill that reveals the location of all the treasure maps.  This means that if you really must collect everything (like me), you have ways to ensure you don't miss a thing.  You'll have more than enough experience and scrap (to upgrade weapons) by the end of the game to have everything fully upgraded, so you aren't forced to play through the game multiple times to collect everything.  The combat always made me feel powerful, but still required me to pay attention and be strategic about how I took out the enemies.  It's also the first game where I felt like using the bow was the most fun (I only used the shotgun in one fight and used the bow the rest of the game).  All in all, if you enjoy a game with collectibles, upgrades, and a movie feel to it (so your spouse/friends can still be entertained watching you play) then I can't recommend this game enough.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Games I Grew Up On: Xenophobe

One of the "cooperative" games I liked to play with my brothers growing up was the NES game, Xenophobe.  Since this was a game based on an arcade game, it's more about a high score and seeing how long you can play than winning.  In fact, I don't even know if this game had an end.  If it did, it was a little too repetitive and long for me to ever find it.

In the game, the players are tasked with trying to find these strange glowing orbs (dropped by killed enemies just like everything else in the game) before the space station you're on blows up.  I think if it did blow up, you still teleport off it safely, you just get less points.  So each space station is made up of a randomly generated set of rooms, which each contain some pre-determined aliens/barriers/teleport switches and also have constantly respawning enemies.  You kill enemies to get items, most just give you points, some give you health, some give you better weapons/grenades, and the glowing orb things end the level.  If you kill too many enemies in one room, they stop dropping items when killing them, so you're encouraged to keep wandering around.  While playing co-op, you can see the other player if you're both in the same room and if either player finds the orb, both players get warped out of the level (which definitely caused much strife for one of us not waiting for the other to get that awesome item that just dropped before forcing them to leave the level).

The enemies range from little amoebas that jump from the ceiling to the floor, floating laser turrets, little bitey leech guys, big jumpy Xenomorph looking aliens (like on the game cover seen above) that spit acid and basically just charge you a lot, and winged blue giraffe looking things that hang on the ceiling and drop bombs on you.  If anything touches you, you get hurt.  If you lose all your health, you lose.  It's as simple as that.  It was definitely a lot of fun at the time, but there's no way this would hold up now.  This is especially disappointing since the arcade game it's based off of sounds way more designed and fleshed out.  I guess that's probably just due to the technical limitations of the NES.  Either that or it was a cash grab...

Monday, August 5, 2013

Console Wars: 1st Year

I'm having issues finding solid data and numbers for the first year of video game console sales.  Most of the searches I come across are all along the same ridiculous lines: "Company X is DOOMED!", "Video games are DOOMED!", or "The economy is DOOMED!"  I find this hilarious because as far as I can remember (and this is where I wish I had more solid data), very few consoles do well in their first year.  I know the 3DS, DS, PS3, and now the Wii U all had pretty miserable first years.  In all cases, it was a severe lack of games because developers were trying to figure out how to develop for these systems.

The PS3 had its own super complicated tech to figure out, but if the developers could, it was super powerful.  The DS was the first touch based gaming system with a few other bells and whistles that developers seemed to feel needed to all be utilized in every game (I'm so glad I don't have to blow out fires by blowing into the mic or talk at my DS anymore...).  The 3DS was mostly the same except for the whole 3D factor.  The Wii U has a completely separate screen that game designers need to figure out how to use.  Most of those systems were also supposedly overpriced, but I feel like if a game system doesn't have enough games that you like on them, it really doesn't matter what price the system is for.  Take for example the OUYA.  It's only $100, the price of most collector edition games.  All games on the system are "free" as well.  However, I have zero interest in the system because not a single game I've heard about on the system sounds appealing to me.

It's especially entertaining to see people say Nintendo as a company is doomed because of lackluster Wii U sales (which is understandable since they only just now started releasing their big slew of games) when there are articles like this that are clearly indicating that the 3DS doing amazing well after a similarly terrible first year.  Personally, I'm hoping the Wii U does well enough to get more than the Nintendo loyalists (like myself) to buy it because of all three new systems for the next generation of gaming, I feel like the Wii U has the most potential for new and different gaming experiences.  Nintendo just needs to start making more asymmetric multiplayer games like the three minigames in Nintendo Land to show the other developers how it's done.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Review: Strip Search

Yet one more awesome reality competition I've found myself happily addicted to is Penny Arcade's Strip Search.  Like Top Chef or Project Runway, this is a competition to find the best in a certain field, namely running a web comic.  Unlike most other reality shows, the contestants on this one aren't constantly at each other's throats and backstabbing each other.  In fact, this is quite possibly the nicest group of people on TV I've seen since the character on Full House.  Quite the opposite of the reality competition trope, they do seem to be here to make friends.  Also, instead of the judges (Jerry and Mike from Penny Arcade) crushing the soles and hopes of anyone who gets eliminated, they meet two on one with them with words of encouragement.

The show is broken down into 20-30 segments that follow the pattern of a social challenge mostly for funsies, a competitive challenge to determine potential contestants to eliminate, and an elimination challenge to whittle down the contestants.  Jerry and Mike definitely had a lot of fun both mocking tropes of reality competition shows and interacting with the contestants.  Just a warning, there is some NSFW language throughout the series, but kind of what you should expect if you've ever read the Penny Arcade comics.  Despite that, this web series is a great way to counter other shows making you lose your faith in humanity.  I really hope they can manage to make more seasons of this show at some point in the future, but they're pretty busy guys.