Thursday, December 31, 2009

False Ending

So I've been continuing my exploration of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And you know what, I took down the boss and saw the credits roll. So that means I beat the game, right? Apparently not so much. I just experienced the premature "bad" ending. In reality I'm only halfway through the game.

Truth be told, if I were playing this game back in 1997 when it came out, I don't know if I'd have realized that I'd encountered a false ending. Yeah, it was kind of a crappy one, but there's a long history of unsatisfying endings in video games. This ending didn't resolve much of the story, but the story didn't make that much sense anyway and it's told with such horrific voice acting that there's a chance someone would have skipped it. Even so, nothing about what's said in the "bad" ending indicates that you did something wrong. You ascend the final staircase and beat down who you consider to be the mastermind of everything that's gone down. After that you're treated to some exposition and then some unskippable credits. How are you supposed to know that that wasn't the real deal?

You may be thinking that perhaps I rushed through the game and missed otherwise obvious details. But I'm pretty obsessive about exploring every last inch of these types of games, fighting every monster and getting all the loot. When I came across the final staircase I knew it for what it was and backed off to go scour the rest of the map for secrets. I've played enough games to know that once you've beaten a game the incentive to go after the little side objectives drops off dramatically. If I don't do it before the ending, chances are I'll never do it. I wanted to make sure I got everything possible out of this game, so I held off the final boss fight as long as possible. When I was satisfied that I had got as many secrets as I could figure out I went off and got my (apparently bad) ending.

What was I missing? As thorough as I was, I apparently missed not one, but two critical items. If you get these two rings, equip them, and go to the clock tower then a door opens up. You go down there, get a cutscene and another item. If you wear that during the "final" boss battle and attack this mysterious green orb instead of the boss you break the curse and continue on to the second half of the game and eventually the real final boss. Totally obvious.

Okay, one of the rings I missed just because I forgot to go back somewhere after I got the bat form. But nothing about that ring obviously indicates what you should do with it. The other ring was in a secret area I didn't figure out. It looked like a place you were supposed to bat and mist through, but you were actually supposed to equip this armor that lets you walk through spikes (which I hadn't realized you could do). That ring more obviously indicated that you should wear it in the clock tower, but it's also extraordinarily easy to miss. To get that spike armor you first have to figure out a whole sequence of other secrets.

If this were Metroid, it'd be the equivalent of having the game end after you fight Kraid just because you skipped picking up some hidden missile pack (no Mother Brain for you). Or like if Zelda if you never got to fight Ganon because you missed one of the heart containers. Why would someone intentionally obfuscate such a large chunk of the game? It's a terrible idea.

The only reason I knew to continue was that I had heard the term "inverted castle" thrown around in reference to this game and when I hit the ending I hadn't seen any inverted castles. I also had an inkling that there was more because I'd played the GBA and DS games, where they've for whatever reason continued this tradition of premature bad endings. Thankfully those ones were more obvious with their badness.

And that's the problem, isn't it? In order to have a false ending it needs to be sufficiently bad. Like you screw up and a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan. You know, obvious failure. You should be thinking "whoops, that probably wasn't supposed to happen." Not "good job me, now let's watch the credits." You essentially want something that dumps you at a clear "Game Over" screen (although not Symphony's, which has to be the cheesiest Game Over screen ever). It's okay to have a "what if" scenario, but not if the "if" is convincing enough that you're willing to accept it and unknowingly miss out on half the experience.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Torchlight (PC)

Okay, enough talking about games that used to be better. It's time for some positive evolution.

Torchlight is Diablo III for those of us who can't wait for Diablo III. It's that same delightfully simple visceral click-fest that kept us all loot-crazed in the late 90s. Well, it's not the same; it's way better. Not only does it feature great graphics and fantastic art direction, it's also streamlined to remove any of the frustrations with the old formula. Oh, and did I mention that it's cheap? Yep, $20. Actually, this weekend it's only $10 on Steam.

If you've never played Diablo, know that Torchlight may still be the game for you. All you need to enjoy this game is a mouse and a pulse. Left button for one spell, right button for another, and go. The MMO genre stole a lot of it's core ideas from Diablo, but slowed everything way way down. I think we'd all forgotten that it doesn't have to be that hard. You don't need rows and rows of action bars with obscure abilities to have tactical depth. Left button, right button, win.

So you click like mad and unleash your fury on hordes of baddies. Then you run around and scoop up their shiny loot. Maybe you got some fancy new thing for yourself (yay!), but if not you can sell it for cash money. And this time around you have a pet to help you with this time honored task. That's right, you don't even need to stop the action in order to sell your goodies - just strap the loot to your pet and tell it to come back with the proceeds. But your pet isn't just a vendor mule - they fight alongside you and can even be given gear and spells. It's brilliant.

Torchlight stands on its own, but it really excites me that this game is the foundation for an MMO the developer is working on. They're going to take this simple wonderful gameplay and bring in that connectivity and persistence that makes MMOs so compelling. I'm officially excited.

I could go on and on about this game. But it'd be mean of me to post about it after the weekend deal. So instead I'll just leave you with some words from Alec over at Rock Paper Shotgun:

The odd thing with trying to write about Torchlight is that I can barely remember playing it. I can remember installing it, then darkness, and then about a week later. I didn’t feel sad or afraid come said week later – time had just blinked past, pleasurably if not terribly memorably. This might sound like a backhanded compliment, but really it’s a straight compliment – sometimes, it’s exactly this phenomenon that we play games for. We want something to take away time that we have no other purpose for. Not everything needs to fill our heads with tales of grand adventure, awe of digital entertainment’s great diversity or triumph over statistical adversity. Torchlight takes away time, quickly and painlessly, replacing it with a vague sense of achievement and a dim hunger for things that can be obtained with ease. If your life is overcomplicated, I can confidently prescribe Torchlight.

It isn’t this precise and effective medicine simply because it’s a decent Diablo clone. It’s because it ruthlessly removes the extraneous ingredients of what was already an incredibly simple formula. Anything that could waste your time or cause annoyance has been cleanly excised, leaving the perhaps cynical but absolute truth of why we play such games: we want constant reward from minimal effort. Click, kill, click, upgrade, click, kill, kill, kill, UPGRADE. It’s not even risk/reward – it’s just reward/reward

Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (DS)

The new release of Spirit Tracks reminds me that I never commented on it's predecessor, Phantom Hourglass. It's not that I didn't play it - I did. But I sent it back after only a couple sittings. I know, I know - I sent back a freaking Zelda games.

I love the Zelda series. The original game totally blew my elementary school mind. A Link to the Past is definitely one of my all time favorites (I'm sure boosted a bit due to my overall SNES nostalgia). I missed Ocarina of Time on the N64, but thankfully got to play it on the GameCube. I loved what Wind Waker did with the art style and with the story. The Minish Cap was a good enough handheld throwback. Twilight Princess was appropriately epic, but I really regret playing it on the Wii instead of the GameCube (the Wii controls were terribly gimmicky). There have been some missteps in the series for sure, but in general it has continued to satisfy me throughout.

Phantom Hourglass, however, frustrated me to no end. It wasn't the stylus controls. I was able to deal with those and appreciate that they made some things better and some things worse (I would argue a lot of those functions would work better if simply mapped to buttons). No, the thing that killed the game for me was the goddamn boat.

Instead of having an overworld to navigate through you're given a big sea and a boat. You trace out a path and the boat will follow that to get from island to island. That doesn't seem so bad, but then you're supposed to pay attention to fire the ship's cannons to avoid monsters and obstacles. The controls aren't terribly precise, but the real problem is the pacing. Most of the time there'll be nothing to worry about, and since you don't have to interact much you'll start to mentally check out. But you can't, because if some little monster pops up and wails on you might have to start your journey over from the beginning. So you're forced to be attentive in the face of overwhelming boredom.

The boat trips drove me absolutely nuts. I was mostly enjoying the game and then as soon as I had to use the boat I pretty much hit a brick wall. So I sent the game back to GameFly, heartbroken. It's too bad, because there were some good ideas in there, but just too many hang-ups for me to continue. And now the sequel is out in Spirit Tracks, and I don't know what to do. It's a reportedly high quality Zelda game, so I should play it? It's been described as just like Phantom Hourglass but with a train instead of a boat... should I give the formula another fair shake?

Venting on a completely different issue: please, developers, never ever use the DS microphone. A large percentage of people play handheld games in public places, and most of them are not interested in looking like an idiot in public. Phantom Hourglass had this part where I was supposed to blow out a torch using the microphone input, and rather than freak out the person next to me on the bus I closed up my DS to save that experience for later. But when I got around to it later that day it was way more annoying than I even anticipated. I blew soft, I blew hard, I blew from all different angles*, until eventually the flame went out with some random combination. It was frustrating, and I wasn't looking forward to any more "puzzles" based on that crap.

It seems unfair of me to be so unsatisfied when a game fails to evolve, but then also be upset here when a game fails during experimentation. I recognize that it's unfair, but that's how I feel.

I worry about the new trend in game controls (be it the DS stylus, touch on the iPhone, the Wii remote, or even Natal). These things have huge potential to open up accessibility of gaming to more people, but used incorrectly they create an imprecise frustrating mess. It takes some restraint to temper the new shinny thing with reason and arrive at a control scheme that makes sense. Okay, I'll say it: Japanese culture is obsessed with kitsch and gimmick. In the broad sense I think that's fine and healthy, but I don't know how much I can look to them to lead the charge on quality gaming. I'm worried that eastern development studios like Nintendo are losing touch with what they did to connect to me in the first place. Of course down the road something awesome will come out and temporarily restore my faith in them, but right now my optimism is low. Here's hoping my friends working on Natal nail it.

* Yes, that is what she said

Monday, December 14, 2009

Phoebe in Wonderland

It's kind of ridiculous, but the premise of Idiocracy basically convinced me to have children. Yes, it's a comedy, and one with extravagant extremes, but the core idea isn't wrong. And I can't really sit back and complain about that while also being part of the problem. But I'm not here to talk about Idiocracy, which has uneven quality at best. I'm here to talk about Phoebe in Wonderland, which is amazing (and is available via Netflix insta-watch, if that's your thing). It is in fact nothing like Idiocracy (I'm already beginning to regret using that as a segue), except that both of them made me think about parenting.

Phoebe in Wonderland is a story that represents everything I fear and everything that excites me about the possibility of being a parent. You have this brilliant vibrant child who is everything you could want: imaginative, creative, and smart as can be. But then you also have the sort of thing that every parent fears: that their child is broken. And that situation threatens to tear the parents apart (both from each other and from themselves). It's a story of the best and the worst. It's a story that forces me to confront the question "even if it's hard, is it still worth it?"

I feel compelled to write about this movie, but I'm having a hard time deciding what to say. It's not quite true that if I told you more it would spoil the experience, but I do feel like it would lessen it. This is a story in which uncertainty made the journey stronger for me. So here's what you need to know: It's a beautiful film, it's well crafted, and for me it was extremely impactful. I often judge a movie by the conversation it spawns afterwards, but in the silence after this one there was absolutely no discussion as I grabbed for the remote and immediately rated it five stars. If you at all consider yourself to be in a similar place in life as me then I highly recommend you watch Phoebe in Wonderland.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rise of the Argonauts (Xbox 360)

I'm not as much of a slave to my Gamefly queue as I am to my Netflix queue. Given the various platforms and their different economic models it's hard for rentals to be a large percentage. At any point I'll generally have a disc out from Gamefly, an MMO I'm poking around in, a handheld game for the bus, some slow burner on the console that would take too long to rent, and some downloadable game. But I'm always trying to push as much of my gaming to rental as possible, which is the smartest option for my rate of play. It has the side effect of encouraging me to try games I would never risk real permanent money on. Which means I throw stuff into my queue that is sometimes pretty borderline.

Oh, hello Rise of the Argonauts, I'm talking about you now. Not long into the first sitting I found myself wondering why the hell I threw this game into my queue. Ancient Greek mythology is up my alley, so that had to been a factor. But this game has a huge identity complex. The core gameplay mechanic is a third person action game. You know, a God of War knockoff. But Argonauts isn't nearly as good, even compared to other knockoffs. You aren't actually provided enough opportunities to swing your aggression around to succeed at being that type of game. Early on I was given an upgrade to a weapon before I had been given an opportunity to use the one before it. Instead of fighting there's lots and lots of dialogue.

For a game with so much talking the dialogue animations are awkward. Wait, they're not awkward - they're absent. Jason stands there in the same pose for every single conversation. And there's some serious recycling of the voice talent for bit parts. I think I had only talked to my fourth NPC before I hit a repeat.

I finished my first sitting and seriously considered putting the game back in the envelope right then and there. But something compelled me to stick with it. I definitely wanted to solve the mystery of why I chose to play the game in the first place. I knew where the answer was - in the GameTrailers video review. Most stuff in my queue first goes through a video review check (games are such a long time commitment that I like to see them first). But I knew that if I went back to the review at this point it'd bias my experience, so I held back and instead just flat out avoided the game for a week.

Eventually I came back, with revised expectations. This is clearly not an action game. It's something… else. I started looking for the positives. Jason may just stand there stiffly as he talks to people, but statically he looks pretty good. And his voice acting is quality. The interpretation of Greek mythology is a bit off canon, but at least they commit to their variations. I found myself honestly invested in what was going to happen next.

And then I remembered why I rented the game in the first place. It was precisely for that mix of compelling story but crappy gameplay. It's the flip of the video game cliché. I had left a little test for myself in my queue: I wanted to know if a game that failed at being a game but still had a decent story behind it could satisfy me. I've played a ton of games that strike the opposite balance and walked away content. Could I do the reverse?

The verdict? Well, I played the game to completion, but all that really means is that I'm willing to ride out a train wreck. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone else. I did continue to care about what was going to happen all the way until the end, but I was also pretty desperate to put that game controller to good use the whole time. Any time I play a game I could have easily reached for the remote instead of the controller, but there's something about my mood that decided on the interactive option.

Yes, Rise of the Argonauts has a story, but it's far from cinema quality. Nor does it muster enough quality interactivity to elevate the story to be more than it is. I'm left dreaming about how much better it would be if it had excelled more at either end. But it didn't, so I guess it's a failure. Oh well, back it goes in the envelope. We'll see what present I left for myself next.

Thursday, December 10, 2009


I'm pretty much a slave to my Netflix queue these days, as that it is by far my primary source of video entertainment. Whenever someone recommends a movie to me, or if there's some repeating pop culture reference to which I am clueless, the movie goes in my queue. The rate I feed the queue is definitely faster than the rate at which I consume it, so over the years the queue has grown obscenely long. Generally I try to manage the top of the queue to keep titles up there that suits my current mood or are at least recently contextual. But every now and then I lapse, and, well... get Scarface.

I don't know what specifically convinced me to add Scarface to the queue. It's probably just the fact that it's one of those movies that people are generally aware of. You know, Al Pacino, "say hello to my little friend!" Having never seen the movie I could describe the cover and vaguely repeat the tidbits I've picked up from conversations over the years. This is the sort of situation that stuffs a movie into my queue. Which is too bad, because the review scores are lies. The ratings my friends gave it based on memory are lies. Scarface is not worth your three hours.

One of the problems I having here is the same I've been having with this Castlevania thing: I experienced this movie in the wrong order. I've seen films like Blow and American Gangster. This is not my first cinematic encounter with drugs and crime lords. It's unfair of me to make any comparisons here, because Scarface is a movie that really paved the way for those more modern titles. In its day it was a ballsy epic that blew people's minds. But for me, in my timeline, it's a story I've seen before and seen better.

What I will say is that Al Pacino is the redeeming aspect of this movie. Having seen him in so many other movies it's clear he is playing a specific role here and not just some stock Al Pacino character. It's not a likeable character, but he nails it. He also totally looks the part, ranging from sleazy to decadent throughout his rise to power.

But that's pretty much it. It's long, there's heaps of cocaine, people swear a lot, and there's violence. Where does this get compelling? I gave it two stars, with Pacino's performance pulling it up out of complete oblivion.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Nostalgic Bias

As promised, I've started playing Symphony of the Night. And I'm having a hard time developing an unbiased opinion. I'm comparing my current experience with the experience other people had in the natural evolution of gaming. I'm coming to this game after having already experienced a half dozen of its indirect sequels. It's extraordinarily difficult to pretend that I'm not bringing a ton of baggage with me on this experience.

But that's always the case, isn't it? All of our experiences are shaped by the path we were on that lead us to them. Expectations, one way or the other, can completely tint our perceptions. Trying to be completely objective is futile, so I guess I shouldn't bother to try? In as much as this blog is a record of my memories, lack of bias is irrelevant. But as this blog serves as a form of communication with other people and a platform for discussion, it's more important for me to try to relate my point of view to a more broad point of view.

So I guess you should question my judgment about this Super Castlevania game. My opinions are not be trusted, as that they are steeped in a nostalgic bias. But should I question my own feelings? Given the warm fuzzies that nostalgia gives me, I don't really have any incentive to upend my positive experiences. But hopefully those don't get in the way of forming new experiences, because when that happens I'm officially Old.

Maybe the true solution is for me as a writer to share my history with you as a reader, so that you can judge how well your path aligns with my path. If you and I have been on similar journeys then it stands to reason that the way I experience something new will be very similar to the way you will experience it. Although you can read what I've posted here and piece some of that together, you'll always have incomplete information because you don't have my whole history. For some time now I've been meaning to put together the autobiographical sort of my gaming experiences (a la High Fidelity) which would definitely serve this purpose. But to take advantage of that I'm assuming a much larger investment from a reader than is probably sane. As I stated from the outset of this blog, I assume I am my only audience. So I should probably only engage such a task if it's appropriately self indulgent, for which I think this qualifies.

In the meantime, I encourage you to challenge what I have to say. I am only one data point. If you're in the same boat, give Symphony a spin and we'll compare notes. Or perhaps you've played Symphony but not Super Castlevania, and can give the reverse analysis. If we come to opposite conclusions than we've really learned nothing more than nostalgia is king. But if there's agreement then I think we're on to something.