Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Rethinking the basics

I have been playing Spiderweb software’s game Avernum for the past few weeks. It is a fantastic open world indie RPG. There are a million things I love about it but one particularly handy feature is that your party fully recovers their health and magic point whenever they enter a town. There is no need to visit an inn, which would be the typical way to heal ones party. Actually if you try to get a room in Avernum the innkeeper will always tell you all the rooms are rented out.

As I get older I have gotten a lower tolerance for games wasting my time and this is a perfect example of how an RPG can be streamline to save the player some time. Finding time to get through an epic 50 hour RPG is hard enough, if the developer can shave off some of that time without taking away any actual gameplay it’s much appreciated. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

A childhood vendetta coming to an end

Looking back on my gaming past there is this one thing that has always bothered me. It's not spending a 100 hours in Morrowind, or standing in line all night in the freezing cold to buy a Wii. It's not even joining an older bearded man in his van to warm my hands at said launch day event. I'm actually not sure I regret any of them, except maybe going into that van, that could have ended badly. No, what I have always regretted has to do with one of my favorite games of all time Final Fantasy VII. As a kid I absolutely loved this game, the memorable character, the fantastic story, the clever Materia system, I loved it all. However for some unknown reason I never defeated Sephiroth. I got to his second form, that borderline homoerotic one winged angel thing. Thinking back it might have been the frog transformation that got the better of me, I could never remember the right item cure that and would simply try everything, wasting valuable turns.

Now more than a decade later I have been slowly replaying the defining role playing experience of my childhood, thanks to the excellent Playstation emulation of the PSP, until I last night came face to face with my pretty boy nemesis. I was at a mere level 50, and got my ass handed to me, but after some leveling in the surrounding areas and dropping by Rocket Town to stock up on Maiden's Kiss I tried again. On my second try this god-like boyhood rival of mine offered little resistance. A few hits with Ultima and the bitch went down. Kicking his ass felt so good that I actually booted up my last save this morning just to beat him down once more. Triumphantly I can now check off 'Finally beating Sephiroth' at the top of my bucket list.

A pleasant journey through time and space

Final Fantasy XIII was criticized for being a very linear experience. Its sequel can best be described as a mix between Chrono Trigger and Super Mario 64, where the player is free to jump between time periods and location and tackle things at least somewhat out of order. It's pretty much the RPG equivalent of Mario jumping in and out of paintings. Only Peach's castle has been replaced with a menu representing a tree like timeline.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 has a story attempting to motivate all this time-hopping, but it's very convoluted and works best if you simply think of it as an excuse to explore beautiful environments while enjoying a good combat system. If you simply want to level up your party while taking in some stunning visuals this game is for you.

Not being a 'real' numbered entry in the Final Fantasy series probably benefitted this game. There was no pressure on Square-Enix to deliver some life changing experience. Instead they have delivered a very pleasant role playing experience, that is unlikely to top anyone's top 10 list but also won't inspire the nerd-rage its predecessor generated. Since this is simply a game that is very hard to dislike.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

An open world RPG done right, finally!

I have been a big fan of Bethesda’s open world games since Morrowind. They have always been able to create vast beautiful worlds, but their games have always lacked in most other aspects. Fallout New Vegas runs on Bethesda’s engine but is otherwise crafted by the guys over at Obsidian Entertainment. Maybe that’s why it is such a brilliant game. Bethesda has done what they do best, creating an impressive open world engine but has left the actual content to the successor to the legendary Black Isle Studios.

Whereas characters used to be bland and boring, New Vegas is filled with interesting NPCs to converse with. Missions used to be generic and mostly an excuse to explore the world. Now they are of a higher quality than in most linear games. There are very few meaningless fetch quests, instead they are now more like well written short stories. Combat was never a strength of Bethesda’s earlier games, now it's fantastic. I have to say I prefere shooting down Super Mutants in New Vegas over the action in any Halo game. Admittedly this was fixed already in Fallout 3 but the difficulty balance in enemy encounters is much improved. Rarely will one randomly run in to some overpowered beast when traversing the wasteland.

New Vegas might very well be my favorite western RPG ever. It suffers from some terrible bugs, the longer one plays the more tangled up the game code seems to become, leading to more and more frequent crashes. Since the game auto saves constantly this is not a devastating problem but it can be very annoying and it keeps the game from otherwise being a near perfect gaming experience.     

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A platformer perfectly adapted for the iPhone

Having no physical buttons makes the iPhone ill-suited for most traditional game genres, platformer being one of them. Still it’s not impossible, Rayman Jungle Run is the perfect example of how it can be done. By having the Rayman auto run and in effect turning the whole touch screen in to a jump button Ubisoft has been able to pull it off. The whole game is then designed with this auto run setup in mind, so while it would never work when porting over say Super Mario Bros. it works fantastically well here.  It also doesn’t hurt that the game has the same amazingly beautiful graphics as Rayman Legends on the consoles. This is really the game that all iOS developers planning to make a platformer should look at.

One big complaint is that Ubisoft themselves screws up these seemingly perfect controls by giving Rayman a punch attack in the last ¼ of the game. This adds a punch button to the game but thankfully the rest of the screen still acts like a big jump button. Even if the game still is fully playable the controls do no longer feel as natural as before and I no longer felt like I had perfect control over Rayman. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

The non-necessity of lives in modern platformers

As long as we have had platformers there has been some limits placed on how many times the player can miss his jumps and fall in to the abyss until he is presented with a Game Over screen. In the early platformers like Super Mario Bros this strict limitation made sense, their short length made it a necessity. With the next generation of platformers like Super Mario World, levels were instead too plentiful to force the player to start over from level 1-1 if he was bitten by a Piranha Plant one too many times. So the player was allowed to save his game at some select locations, for example after finding that well hidden exit in those all too confusing Ghost Houses.

After playing a fair bit of Rayman Origins I have come to feel that this half step was a bit too conservative; there is in fact no need for lives at all in today platformers. Rayman Origins has a system where the player is allowed to respawn at the latest checkpoint as many times as necessary to beat the level, there is simply no concept of lives at all in the game. The surprising thing is that this works perfectly fine and takes nothing away from the experience. One could argue that this would make the game less challenging, but it is a cheap way to turn up the difficulty.

In many ways limiting the number of tries the player is restricted to forces the developers to turn down the difficulty. With a system without such restrictions some truly difficult near impossible scenarios can be designed, since the player will be allowed as many tries as needed to master them. This is a type of difficulty that is better fitted to platformers. They are not meant to offer a survival horror like experience where the player fears death, but one where the player feel totally bad ass for having pulled off some super tricky jumps sequence. I can't help to wonder if Super Mario World and many of its contemporaries from that golden age of platformers would have been more enjoyable with a system more like that of Rayman Origins.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Best of E3 2012

With all of the big E3 press conferences over I have put together a list of the games shown that I'm excited about and is very likely to purchase. They are the following:

New Super Mario Bros U (WiiU)
Rayman Legends (WiiU)
Epic Mickey Power of Illusion (3DS)
New Super Mario Bros 2 (3DS)
Paper Mario Sticker Star (3DS)
Luigi’s Mansion Dark Moon (3DS)

They all have somethings in common, things that are very revealing about my fairly narrow preferences when it comes to video games. They are all for Nintendo platform, 4 out of 6 are even first party Nintendo titles and all those first party titles are Mario games. 4 out of 6 are side scrolling platforming games with the other two (Paper Mario & Luigis's Mansion) arguably being some sort of platforming hybrids.

It should be very clear from this list that I am absolutely in love with Mario, he is my favorite video game character. Not so much for his 'brilliant' character design but for the consistent quality of the titles bearing his name.

As I have gotten older my tastes in games have become ever more conservative, I love Nintendo games because they play and most importantly feel the same way Nintendo games always have. Sure there are added gimmicks to change up the experience but the essence stays the same. You might have noticed that Pikmin 3 is not on my list, even if this is a Nintendo title it is a bit too unorthodox for my taste.

Epic Mickey and Rayman Legends are not Nintendo games but both are 2d side scrollers, a genre I was raised on and with obvious appeal to someone like me who is not fully comfortable with the turns main stream gaming has taken the last two generations.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I never knew this existed!

I have this tradition where I play through Super Mario World about once a year. For some reason I have never seriously tried to beat Star Road in any of these playthroughs. I usually just take the quickest way to Bowser, kick his ass and turn the console off. That I never gave Star Road a chance is a bit weird since the place always fascinated me as a kid, plus it is not terrible difficult, I beat its 5 levels in about 30 minutes. What really surprised me is what came after, it turns out there is this whole secret world known as Special World. Its levels are a big mishmash of elements grabbed from other worlds, in many ways they remind me of the fan made Super Mario World levels that have become so popular, except for the near impossible difficulty of many fan creations. The challenge of Special World is actually quite manageable.

The world design as seen in the screenshot above is almost overly bland, the most memorable thing about it might be the attention grabbing names of the levels: Gnarly, Tubular, Way Cool, Awesome, Groovy, Mondo, Outrageous and finally Funky. At the end of the unusually long level ‘Funky’, as the timer is counting down towards zero the player is greeted by the message "YOU ARE A SUPER PLAYER!" spelt out with gold coins, quite possible the first instance of fourth wall breaking in a Nintendo game, at least on the SNES.

What is possibly more interesting is what happens after the player completes this odd world. The overworld changes in to an autumn theme and it appears to be Halloween in Dinosaur Land, the Koopas are dressed up as Mario and Luigi with ridiculous looking huge heads and the Piranha Plants are hiding inside scary looking pumpkins. So not only did there exist a secret world I knew nothing about, there was this whole hidden alternative version of Super Mario World.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Brilliant game design

Skyward Sword is in many ways a traditional 3D Zelda experience, not much different from its roots on the N64. Yet it is also full of clever new ideas and creativity. My favorite example of this involves time warping orbs and a dried up lake reminiscent of the Aral Sea.

These magical orbs work in such a way that when activated they transforms the area immediately around them back to the state which it was in an earlier time. As you can imagine the leads to some mind twisting puzzles, the coolest of which is when one of the orbs is attached to an old ship. This ship is found at the edge of a sprawling desert that once was a great lake. When the orb is activated a small patch of desert land around the boat actually shifts back in time, transforming sand in to water. So Link is able to ride his boat around the vast desert as the sand dunes continuously change shape around him.

This a wonderfully creative idea illustrates perfectly how the Zelda team over in Kyoto is far from running on auto pilot, instead they are still full of creativity. They keep coming up with fresh new ideas which are then implemented within the context of the familiar setting and mechanics of Zelda.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Such a sweet grind

I have written many blog posts about the pleasure I get from leveling up my party members in RPGs. The grind is however never as satisfying as in an RPG with a good job system. As I’m writing this I just watched the end credits of Final Fantasy Tactics and that game had the most fantastic job system ever. The ability to combine different skills from different classes is so much fun that the hunt for experience points never gets boring.

An example of one of the immensely satisfying combinations you can put together involves the Monk. The Monk is an all-around great class, but limited by his inability to equip armor. But if I temporarily turn him in to a Knight and level him up I will unlock a skill allowing him to equip heavy armor no matter his current job. Suddenly I have a Monk wearing heavy armor, pretty awesome. Another great combination involves the Ninja, a job class with a wide movement range which is important in a strategy RPG. He is perfect to send in behind enemy lines to get rid of annoying archers and magic users but will inevitably be attacked by the enemy when his turn is over. However if I let him spend some time as a Monk I can equip him with the counter ability. Now I will almost welcome those enemy attacks, especially if he spent enough time as a Monk to unlock first strike ability, allowing him to not only counter the enemy attack but to strike even before the enemy has a chance to.

I’m so happy I got to play this game since I completely missed it back on the original PlayStation. I played it on the iPhone and being able to level up my party whenever I had a free minute was great. The PSP port probably has superior controls but honestly it’s not that big of a problem in a tactics game. In an action game unresponsive controls completely kills the experience, here there is no time pressure so it doesn’t really matter.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The closing argument of the motion control debate

Ever since the Wiimote was unveiled back in 2005 gamers have vigorously argued over the idea of motion control. On one side there has been those who claim motion controls add nothing to the experience other than unnecessary waggle, pointing to its unsatisfying implementation in the majority if Wii games. In the other corner you have fond gamers who argue that motion control has the possibility of greatly improving the gaming experience, pointing at most Nintendo first party games as well as some of the better designed third party games to justify their claim.

With the release of Skyward Sword the motion crowd has been handed their most impressive showcase yet. Here we have one of Nintendo’s most iconic and hard core oriented series integrating motion control in to every part of the gameplay. And it works!

The most impressive part is definitely the combat, using the increased sensitivity of the Wii Motion Plus the Zelda team has brought a whole new level of strategy the swordplay. Link’s enemies will attempt to block his attacks in such a way that the precise manner in which the Wiimote is swung now matters. This makes the combat much more interesting and complex without ever becoming annoying or the controls feeling unresponsive.

The firing of projectiles, be it using the slingshot or the bow is made much more precise and quick by simply aiming the Wiimote at the screen. This is nothing new, it was already a part of Twilight Princess but it remains one of the most satisfying implementations of motion control.

On top of these absolutely game changing additions, motion control is sprinkled all over the game design allowing the player to more directly interact with the environment. One of my favorites involves Link rolling a bomb in a bowling ball like manner, this could have been done with a button press, but it would never have felt as satisfying.

Taken together the various implementations of motion control have so significantly improved the traditional Zelda gameplay that it offers the perfect example of motion control done right. Proving that motion control really has the ability to greatly contribute to the gaming experience.