Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sony can win the next console war for me with one thing: international awareness

This doesn't address my concerns. At all.

Like anyone, I was interested to see what Sony had in store with the PlayStation 4 when they announced it last week. For me, though, there were two glaring omissions that were even more important than the whole will-it-or-won’t-it-play-used-games thing (which doesn’t matter to me in the slightest, honestly; I’m not an impulsive game shopper: I wait for sales): the console itself, which I not only hope looks cool, but won’t take up an immense amount of my precious floor space, and will-it-or-won’t-it be region free.

For example, before it came out only about a month ago in the US, I played about 15 hours of the Japanese version of Ni No Kuni (fantastic game, btw). I am good enough at Japanese that I can read the two basic alphabets at lightning speed, but my understanding of Japanese vocabulary and grammar is more than a little suspect. As is my general familiarity with the casual spoken language. The character Drippy, named Shizuku in Japan, is nearly indecipherable in the English version of the game with his wacky Cockney-like tongue and ridiculous speed of speech, but it’s a perfect adaptation of the Japanese Shizuku, who uses un-dictionary-able slang and a speaking voice that makes you wish you had digital hands that could wring his neck through the screen. It was a very slow and difficult 15 hours and it turns out, as I discovered only a few days after receiving my American Ni No Kuni, only about five hours of actual gameplay. I’d spent around ten hours just listening to the cutscenes and reading the subtitles on pause, looking up what I could in the dictionary, and, in many cases, giving it up for slang or idiom I simply had no knowledge of and moving on. Needless to say, that was not an especially fun way to spend my time.
This whole scene was a particularly frustrating hour of attempted translation.
This is by far my most pressing concern. As some of you may recall, I live and work near Nagoya, Japan, but I am not fluent in Japanese, speaking, reading, or writing. This is an issue when it comes to games that require any amount of effort outside of platforming, sports, or music games. Role-playing games are a favorite genre of mine, but playing them with a dictionary in front of me is so ridiculously slow that it kills the game experience.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Lego review: 9470 Shelob Attacks

Lego has historically struggled with creating brick-built animals. While Lego bricks are great for building things with lots of right angles and flat surfaces like vehicles and buildings, it's a bit tougher to use Lego bricks to recreate organic lifeforms. Lego realizes this, as we can see in their recent Dino theme where the eponymous dinosaurs were not brick-built but unfortunately more action-figure-like.

Shelob in this set is perhaps Lego's Best Spider Ever. It's their third attempt at a Giant Spider; before Shelob, Lego made two different sets based on Harry Potter's Shelob ripoff Aragog. There was the hilariously cartoonish Aragog in 4727 Aragog in the Dark Forest in 2002, and the slightly less terrible but still terrifically terrible Aragog in 4738 Hagrid's Hut in 2010. Look at those sword-legs! Indeed, there are two key problems with all of Lego's previous spiders: getting the eight multi-jointed legs right, and getting the abdomen right.

Shelob Attacks rights all the wrongs of previous Lego spiders. Although they're still a bit fragile, Shelob has well-designed legs that are actually strong enough to support the spider's body on their own. And Shelob has a huge abdomen which adds some meatiness (yum!) to her body. She's even got a spinneret so she can trap Frodo for a juicy treat, and imposing pincers to munch on him with.

Look closely at Shelob's eyes. One of them is poked out! This is a nice lil reference to the source material, where Sam stabs her in the eyeball. Speaking of the non-Shelob parts of the set, let's take a gander: There's Frodo with his blade Sting, the Phial of Galadriel, and of course the One Ring that fits snugly on his hand. The best part of this minifigure, though, is his petrified "I've just been poisoned" facial expression--click on the image above for a zoomed-in view. We've got his loyal Samwise, who looks pretty much how you'd expect him to look.

Then there's Gollum. Instead of a standard minifig body, Gollum has a hunched-over mold with a random stud on his back (to later attach some elven rope?). I'm not really a fan of this body or his strange facial expression, but he wouldn't have worked with a standard minifig body. I'm not sure what the correct portrayal of Gollum would've been.

Nevertheless, this is a nifty set. A realistic, if slightly fragile, depiction of Shelob. Great Frodo and Sam minifigs. And the first appearance of Gollum!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Vocal Music in Games: Gears of War

Even though most people might associate a certain song with Gears of War due to a commercial, the focus of this supposedly regular series is on original (not in the unique sense) music for/from video games.  Who then shall be highlighted?  None other than Dave Mustaine with his mega power of considering certain vowels unnecessary.  "Gears of War" is a song in the franchise-launching Gears of War.  It's rife with all of the elements you're used to from Megadeth.  Quite frankly it sounds like a generic Megadeth song, but hey, it works here.  It's definitely a musical style that fits quite well with the nature of the game.  The lyrics aren't too complicated either but what they lack in complexity they make up for in repetition and heavy handedness as they get across a feeling of "gears of war."  It's a simple tune that knows what it is supposed to be and accomplishes that goal rather efficiently.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thoughts on the PlayStation 4 reveal

After years of speculation, Sony finally announced the PlayStation 4 yesterday. It was inevitable, but considering I finally got a PlayStation 3 this past December, I was nevertheless a little bummed out.

PlayStation 4 won't be a day-one buy for me regardless of my PS3, because with the glaring exception of the Nintendo GameCube, new consoles tend to have sparse libraries for their first year of existence (yes, earlier Nintendo consoles had Mario at launch, but they didn't have anything else for a long time). No matter what the hardware is like, it means nothing without great software. What were my takeaways from Sony's big reveal last night?

Global gaming: The Snowfield (Singapore)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

The Snowfield - Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, 2011 (play it here)

Considering we're getting up to ten inches of snow today in Kansas City, I felt like writing about The Snowfield. But surprisngly, it comes from Singapore--not exactly a place known for its wintry weather.

The Snowfield was developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. GAMBIT was a collaboration focused on encouraging young game designers in Singapore to explore the medium. Their 2011 work is a war game, but not quite a wargame. In The Snowfield, you play as a World War I soldier walking around a battlefield in the aftermath of the battle.

Considering the industry's fixation with wargames, this post-war image is a great commentary on the aftermath we don't get to see in other games. No shooting people, no action. Just suffering bodies in the cold.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lego review: 9469 Gandalf Arrives

As an introductory set to Lego Lord of the Rings, Gandalf Arrives is fitting. It's from an introductory scene in The Fellowship of the Ring! It's got Frodo with the book he's reading in the film's opening scene after the prologue, and Gandalf has his horse-driven cart in which "he arrives exactly when he means to."

A nice touch is the collection of fireworks Lego Gandalf brings to use at Bilbo's birthday party, including the red dragon firework that Merry and Pippin steal. Even more nifty is that the red dragon firework piece is actually a repurposed snake piece from Lego's Ninjago theme, seen here being released by the fearsome Rattlecopter.

This is also one of the first sets to include Lego's new horse figure with movable hind legs! Huzzah!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Reluctantly embracing Batman

I've been getting into comics lately. I just finished catching up with Ultimate Spider-Man, and I figured the next series I should tackle is the one on everyone's "best comics of 2012" list: Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's reboot of Batman, subtitled in its first collection as The Court of Owls.

Despite its critical acclaim, I was hesitant to embrace Bruce Wayne. Much like how Spider-Man was the "it" guy in superhero movies during my formative years, Batman is the popular one these days due to Christopher Nolan's film trilogy. He's so popular I instinctively don't want to like him, because I'm that sort of person.

This is the cover of a real Batman issue.
You wouldn't see this in a Chris Nolan film.

While I enjoyed Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, I thought they weren't the Greatest Movies of All Time like many other nerds have deemed them. And The Dark Knight Rises was... mediocre at best. I understand Batman is a "serious" character, but at the end of the day he's still a guy in a bat costume punching bad guys. Nolan's trilogy takes itself too seriously, both in terms of tone and in terms of realism in its art direction.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Halo 4: Mechanical Design Devolved

The Halo franchise is much beloved by a rather large group of people, and it has some prime real estate in my heart.  There have been scientific studies done in the past that have concluded that everyone digs giant robots, especially chicks.
Omni Consumer Products latest Detroit clean-up mech

It would then stand to reason that the inclusion of mechs in Halo 4 should be like chocolate and peanut butter.  Alas the concoction is more akin to turkey gravy and whole peanuts.  Sure you can mix them, but the end result is a gritty brown mess.  Halo 4's primary antagonist is one of the worst character designs I've ever had had the displeasure to lay eyes on, but my main complaint here is that Halo 4's Mantis is a poor design.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Global gaming: Sine Mora (Hungary)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

Sine Mora - Digital Reality, 2012

I've been on a Suda51 kick recently, and I love me some Eastern European game design. Grasshopper Manufacture's most recent collaboration is with Budapest-based studio Digital Reality for the shoot-em-up downloadable title Sine Mora. It may be the best modern shoot-em-up since Treasure's Ikaruga. Like Ikaruga, its twitch-gameplay difficulty harkens back to the genre's arcade roots. But while most games like this are vertical these days, Sine Mora is a horizontal game based around a time-slowing mechanic which helps the player get through the bullet-hell levels and epic bosses. Grasshopper did the artwork, but Digital Reality did all the actual game design.

And most importantly, while most foreign games in my global gaming series are still in English (for better and for worse), Sine Mora's characters actually speak in Hungarian. I love it. I don't know if it's Grasshopper who made the call to let Digital Reality keep the game in their native tongue, but publisher Microsoft deserves major props for letting it happen. This may be the first time a game has ever been released worldwide in Hungarian, a language spoken by only 15 million people.

The global gaming map so far (zoom out for full map):

View Global Gaming Spotlight in a larger map

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lego review: 30211 Uruk-hai with Ballista

Uruk-hai with Ballista is sadly vastly inferior to its fellow Lego Lord of the Rings polybag, Frodo with Cooking Corner. While the other features a charming set of friendly alcoholic undertones, Uruk-hai with Ballista is simply... an Uruk-hai with a little ballista. It's pretty pointless, since you can get these same pieces in higher quantities in the Uruk-hai Army and Battle of Helm's Deep sets. But this lil polybag has been quite popular as an army-builder for people who really want ten thousand Uruk-hai to attack the Hornburg.

Ten games I'm looking forward to in 2013

a.k.a. A Few First-Person Walking Games

We're into the dead period of the year when it comes to game releases. But fret not! There's a ton of the horizon. I struggled to limit this list to just ten, so I won't include the upcoming standalone remakes of great titles like The Stanley Parable and DayZ. And of course, there's the upcoming Director's Cut of one of my favorite games of all time, Deadly Premonition. But when it comes to actual new games in 2013, here you go:

SimCity - Maxis

This one's less than a month away! The reboot of Will Wright's seminal city-builder looks more epic than ever, with a decade-long wait after SimCity 4 in 2003. While most of the rest of the games on this list are pretentious arty independent games, I'll always have a soft spot for well-designed strategy games. Heck, I've poured more hours into Civilization V than anything else I've written about on this blog. SimCity hopes to spark the next generation of strategy titles, with an increased focus on co-op and having your city interact with other players' cities online.

I've got mixed feelings on the "reboot" concept where a company gives a game the same name as the first game in the series, whether it's SimCity or Tomb Raider or Bionic Commando. You inevitably end up calling it "SimCity 2013" to distinguish it from the original, which seems to defeat the purpose of the name in the first place.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Lego review: 30210 Frodo with Cooking Corner

One of two polybags released for the Lord of the Rings line, this is a great lil introduction to the series. You get Frodo in his "Shire outfit," a neat little stove with a frying pan and sausage, a wine bottle, a goblet, and a keg.

The alcoholic undertones of this mini-set are pretty excellent. Nowhere on the packaging does it specify what the keg is or what it holds inside, and the "wine bottle" could just be a "bottle." Kids are left to figure out what it all means on their own. But with hobbits' massive appetite for alcohol, it's fitting that this set includes so much. I'm happy Lego let the set designer get away with it.

Global gaming: Rock of Ages (Chile)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

Rock of Ages - ACE Team, 2011

We don't get the chance to talk about Latin American videogames very often, even as Chile has one of the region's strongest economies and standards of living. But we'll hopefully see more and more Latin American games over the next couple decades. Extra Credits even thinks so, in their totally unique and original "Global Games" video series they just started...

Rock of Ages is a hilarious, bizzare tower defense/Marble Madness hybrid with a Monty Python-esque art style. You control a giant rock with a creepy (in a good way) face. In some ways, it reminds me of the other giant-ball misunderstood classic, Odama. It was released on Xbox Live Arcade in 2011, developed by three brothers in Santiago.

The game was published by Japanese distributor Atlus. as I get older and my taste in games gets more obscure, I gain more respect for Atlus--they do a great job of bringing a higher profile to smaller, lower-budget games. While the games industry splits into two distinct camps--AAA and indie--the "AA" games and publishers like this are beginning to disappear. Hopefully Atlus can continue to thrive into the next decade.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Thoughts on Suda51's new game Killer Is Dead

I've written on this blog before about how much I love Goichi Suda's Killer7. At this point in my life, it may be my favorite game of all time. The avant-garde approach to game design by his studio Grasshopper Manufacture is unmatched.

But as I've also written about on this blog, Suda's games have gone downhill since Killer7 in 2005. He seems to have realized his games have quirky appeal, so he's been banking more and more on the "silly" aspect of his work, without the bleak qualities of Killer7 that make it so evocative.

Grasshopper's first game following Killer7No More Heroes, was more on the humorous side but still a brilliant game. But Suda's two major productions since then, Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw, are humorous to the point of losing the deeper meaning seen in Suda's older work.

So the announcement of Killer Is Dead is a welcome return to Suda's roots. Billed not as a sequel but a spiritual successor to Killer7, the first real details on Killer Is Dead have emerged over the past few weeks. Its official website is online, and the first official trailer has been released:

It sports the cel-shaded serious look of Killer7 mixed with a healthy dose of the swordplay hack-and-slash of No More Heroes. This is great, although I hope it isn't too button-mashy.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Killer7 was simply interacting with its bizarre cast of characters and exploring the gameworld. From the first part of the trailer, I was worried it would be an action-adventure game with all "action" and no "adventure".

But the second part of the trailer beginning at the 1:50 mark of the video--the epilogue?--gives me hope. It's an introduction to the game's protagonist, the immaculately-named Mondo Zappa. This reminds me of Killer7 protagonist Garcian Smith, and lovable No More Heroes main character Travis Touchdown. Zappa hints at the next video featuring "a beautiful woman who has devilish hands," and we get to see indeed, a woman with at least ten hands. I CAN'T WAIT FOR MORE!

The prevalence of moon imagery throughout the website and the trailer harkens back to Killer7, and of course, Mondo Zappa is probably a reference to musician Frank Zappa's daughter Moon Zappa. Suda has said in interviews that the game exists in a near-future where lunar tourism is prevalent, but insists that Killer Is Dead isn't a science fiction game. Coming from Grasshopper Manufacture, this could mean anything.

A final note: can Masafumi Takada do the soundtrack, please? He was the man behind the music of Killer7 and No More Heroes, but hasn't worked with Suda since then. Maybe he's the secret behind Grasshopper's greatest works.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

2013 NHL jersey rankings

I wrote about changes in hockey jerseys this year, but I've never done a full NHL ranking of team sweaters. With a return to clean, classic looks being the new trend in jersey design, the NHL is looking better than ever 2013. This season is the most stagnant in a long time, uniform-wise, so it's the perfect opportunity to start my list. Without further ado:

30. Chicago Blackhawks

Hardcore hockey fans are always partial towards the sweaters of Original Six teams, and many folks in the hockey community point to this jersey in particular as the pinnacle of jersey aesthetics. I think it's absolutely atrocious. It's a boring sweater with no clear color scheme and an even more boring away jersey. But more importantly, it's racist. Defenders of the Blackhawks will say it's not nearly as incendiary as other Native American-named sports teams, like the Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins. They even say it's "respectful." But how would you feel if there were a team called the Chicago Zulus, with a "respectful" cartoon tribal leader as its primary logo? In the 21st century, it's unacceptable. And unlike some other Native American-named teams, the Blackhawks have an easy way out: they could change the logo without changing the name, and "Blackhawks" could literally refer to birds rather than to an ethnic group of humans.

29. Anaheim Ducks

Chicago racism aside, this is by far the ugliest jersey in hockey and Anaheim knows it. They take every chance they can get to wear their slightly more colorful third jersey, and I wouldn't be surprised to see the third jersey become the new home jersey in a couple years. Even when I went to the Ducks home opener this year, more fans at Honda Center were wearing the third jersey than the home one. The home jersey has no personality, and the boring wordmark is too small to read from far away.
It frustrates me that all three California NHL teams feature predominantly black jerseys. Of all places to not wear black, you'd think it'd be California. The Ducks wear orange as a reference to Orange County where they play, which I'd like to see more of. And with the shoulder patch on their third jersey, they're even beginning to hint at their classic Mighty Ducks look. Perhaps it's a sign of things to come.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Global Gaming: The Path (Belgium)

With each post in this mini-feature, I highlight a game from a different country around the world. Keep in mind these aren't necessarily the best or most popular games from each nation, but simply a fitting representative.

The Path - Tale of Tales, 2009

Tale of Tales is one of the first developers brought up in conversations about "art games." Many of their titles are more like interactive stories than games, per se. But the pretentious arty person I am, I'd argue interactive stories are games.

Anyway, Tale of Tales is known for titles like The Endless Forest, a massively-multiplayer game where you don't really do anything except walk around a forest as a deer, and dance around with other deer. They also made The Graveyard, a short game about an old lady... walking through a graveyard. That's the whole game. Their newest title, Bientôt l'été, is an asymmetrical multiplayer game about playing chess and drinking wine with anonymous strangers.

But Tale of Tales' most influential work is The Path. It's a psychological horror game based on the more grim (or Grimm?) side of fairy tales, and Little Red Riding Hood in particular. The player walks through the woods to Grandmother's house, and experiences some pretty creepy stuff along the way.

Despite lacking any overt "scares", The Path is more creepy than almost any horror game on the market today. It's only $10, so you should download it.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Avengers ruined Spider-Man for me.

I didn't grow up reading comic books. But I'm a fairly nerdy person, and all "geek" culture owes itself to comic books--the original geek culture. Although superhero movies are more popular than ever, superhero comics remain a niche market. So I decided I should start reading some.

Coming of age in the early '00s, I've got a soft spot for Sam Raimi's Spider-Man film trilogy. Yes, I even thought Spider-Man 3 was decent, but that's a debate for another day. So I decided to start my comic book career with Spidey. But even narrowing it down to one superhero, how do I dive headfirst into comics' infamously complex web of multiple continuities and crisscrossing storylines?

I remember hearing back in late 2011 that Peter Parker died, and there was a new Spider-Man. Not only that, but he's a black Latino kid named Miles Morales! There have been a few minority superheroes, but the industry is still dominated by straight white men. Black superheroes like Nick Fury and the Black Panther are only peripheral characters. But Spider-Man is Marvel's trademark guy; it's a big statement that they would make their most popular character a black kid. I liked this a lot, and the series reboot would be a good place to start since I wouldn't have to worry about catching up on Miles Morales' backstory. So I decided I should start by reading Spider-Man.

But of course, I quickly discovered there's more than one Spider-Man comic. Since major superheroes are owned by corporations rather than the individual authors who created them, the most marketable characters often have more than one series by more than one author going on at any given time. Batman has dozens of concurrent series being published at this very moment. Spider-Man, by comparison, only has a handful. But of course Marvel wouldn't be ballsy enough to make the primary Spider-Man comic feature a black kid. Miles Morales is featured in the spinoff series Ultimate Spider-Man. And Miles doesn't even have the spider-suit to himself! Inevitably, there was the crossover miniseries Spider-Men last year, where Marvel came up with a dumb excuse for parallel realities to collide so Miles could meet the "real" white guy Spider-Man, Peter Parker. I'm sure fanboys were pleased.