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November 17, 2007

IFComp Results Out, Lost Pig Wins Out

- Aha, I see that the winners of this year's Interactive Fiction Competition have been announced, and there's all kind of text adventure goodness in there - but the amusingly named 'Lost Pig' from 'Grunk' wins out.

SidneyMerk.com has a review of the game, explaining: "Lost Pig is told from the decidedly simple perspective of the main character, an orc named Grunk. A new player might mistake Grunk’s broken English and seemingly unambitious goal as laziness on the author’s part. After only a few minutes of play, however, it becomes pleasingly obvious how much effort has gone into creating Grunk’s world."

All the games from 2007 are available to download at IFComp, and there are lots of impressions on the Intfiction.org forums, and also on Emily Short's blog and especially on SidneyMerk.com's site, where he's reviewed all the entries in some detail. Oh, and IFDB has details/reviews on all the games, so there.

Inside Arcadia Magazine, An Arcade Geek's Heaven

- The extremely otaku-friendly Akihabara Channel blog has an interesting post discussing the latest issue of Enterbrain's Arcadia magazine, the only consumer arcade game magazine in the world - and a testament to the niches that can exist in the Japanese market.

As is mentioned, the magazine "...had a scoop on a new expansion to the Melty Blood fighting game; Melty Blood Actress Again. The game is due out Spring 2008 and will feature 2 new characters: Riesbyfe and the main villain of the original Tsukihime game, Roa." The whole way that the super-niche doujin scene is feeding into the niche arcade scene in Japan - with titles like Melty Blood and Akatsuki Blitzkampf - continues to intrigue.

It's also noted: "Another interesting project on this magazine was the Arcadia Awards where the reader votes for the best Arcade machine. But… how can you compare games of different genres? For example, the nomination for best graphics are: Arcana Heart, Mobile Suits Gundam Senjyo no Kizuna, After Burner Climax, Battle Fantasia, and 2 Spicy…" An interesting cross-section, eh? But it feels like the arcade scene's appeal is getting perhaps more selective even in Japan.

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Gun Force 2

GUN FORCE 2: BLAZE OF GLORY, starring Daniel Pesina and Cynthia Rothrock.[“Might Have Been” is a sorta bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Irem's Gun Force 2, released for the arcade in 1994.]

Metal Slug shouldn’t have succeeded, considering how games were in the mid-‘90s. Amid all the 3-D polygon revolutions and flashy new consoles and PlayStation ads with a blocky Russian dominatrix alienating female customers in droves, there wasn’t much room for Metal Slug, a side-scrolling Neo Geo action/shooter with a violently cartoonish streak and strictly 2-D gameplay. But it worked. Through either its own charms or the blind love of Neo Geo fans desperate for something that wasn’t King of Fighting Samurai Real Bout Ragnagard 3, Metal Slug did well and kept on doing well, to the point where it’s now arguably SNK’s biggest series.

Metal Slug wasn’t an SNK creation, of course. The series was devised and, up until the third game or so, developed by a smaller group called Nazca, which, in turn, had been started by programmers from Irem. Metal Slug fans were quick to uncover evidence of this in old Irem arcade games that use the same grimy, carefully detailed visual style later defined by Metal Slug. Undercover Cops, In the Hunt, Cosmic Cop, and even R-Type II all have the look, but there’s one old Irem title closer to Metal Slug than any other.

Women crying. Yep, this was made in Japan.Metal Slug Zero

Irem’s original Gun Force was a response to the Contra series, albeit one lacking the impressive bosses, smooth controls, unique weapons, and all of the other things that make Contra fun. For the sequel, Irem’s future Nazca staffers enhanced just about everything. Gun Force 2 ("Geo Storm" in Japan) was still a walk-and-fire Contra clone, but with much more impact.

Granted, most of that impact comes from the fact that everything looks so much better. The scenery brims with details, from the blackened husk of a train engine to the walls of the expected last-level crawl through an Aliens-inspired hive. It’s a dirty, burned-out, and weirdly interesting world. And, best of all, everything blows up real nice: flying bombers spew gouts of flame as they sink from view, a jointed mech boss sets a forest on fire, and boxcars go up in screen-filling blazes. And that’s just the first stage.

Irem also re-thought the game’s controls and came up with something odd: instead of basic single-gun armaments, the stars of Gun Force 2 (the man’s Max and the woman’s Lei, judging by the default name-entry screen) each carry two machineguns. One’s aim is directly controlled by the player, while the other just sort of tags along, sending its shots either a little higher or lower than the main gun. It makes for some creative, if unwieldy, firing patterns.

The cyborg bug apparently has a ponytail fetish.No elephant, though

If there’s one thing that sets Gun Force 2 above its predecessor and other Contra swipes, it’s the vehicles, and the fact that you’re almost always driving, riding or flying one of them. The original Gun Force had many such diversions, but none controlled well. The sequel features much more manageable minigun platform, turrets mounted on helicopters and trains, a clanking bipedal mech that spits gunfire-showering remote missiles, and flying robotic armor which you can keep it for most of the fourth level, if you're good enough. One jeep model even allows one player to drive while another mans the turret, predating that fancy Halo feature by about seven years.

The game’s best moments, however, come when Max and Lei hop on motorcycles and race down a mine shaft, chased by an enormous jointed centipede (yet another game boss inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). It’s a spectacular boss battle, with everything speeding and jumping and shattering and exploding all at once, and even the game’s last level, in which you stalk a giant alien grub through a collapsing building, feels just a bit dull in comparison.

that boss takes FOREVER to kill i mean what the hell IremAnd you can’t turn into mummies or snow-people, either

With the vehicles, the rampant explosions, and the rich visual style, it’s very much the prototype for Metal Slug. Nazca’s later creation even borrowed some of Gun Force 2’s sound effects and its habit of rescuing shackled prisoners, though Gun Force 2’s hostages are all identical women who resemble Marian from Double Dragon and moan appreciatively when saved, instead of Metal Slug’s lovable bearded POWs.

In a few ways, Gun Force 2 is actually better than what Nazca later devised. Though it’s been around for over ten years and nearly as many titles, Metal Slug still doesn’t let its characters fire diagonally, something Gun Force 2 never has a problem with. The vehicles here also control a little better than most of the lineup in Metal Slug, which, one must also note, has never featured a motorcycle-centipede chase down a mine railway.

Yet Gun Force 2 remains a prototype. Metal Slug not only has fairer challenge thanks to its smaller characters, but it’s also far more appealing. Aside from a half-amusing boss fight where Max and Lei are aided by armed versions of the hostages they’ve rescued, Gun Force 2 is largely devoid of any real personality, lacking the cartoon exaggeration and background humor of the Metal Slug series. The weapon selection’s also much better in Metal Slug, which trounces Gun Force 2’s paltry, underused arsenal of missiles and flamethrowers.

He needs a ROCKET LAWNCHAIRPut it on the Exidna, Irem

If Irem intended to make Gun Force 2 a springboard to greater things, the chance never came. Shortly after the game arrived in 1994, Irem’s low profits led them to cease all game-related projects, effectively driving away the same programmers who’d form Nazca.

Would Metal Slug be better if it had started at Irem and evolved in line with Gun Force 2? Probably not. While Gun Force 2 still serves as a solid Contra clone with a few spikes of pure destructive joy, Nazca was right to move on. Metal Slug’s success stemmed as much from its goofball atmosphere as its level design, and the filthy, grim-toned environs of Gun Force 2 don’t have the same appeal.

Still, it’s a bit of a shame that that Gun Force 2 is often overlooked, legally locked out of any of SNK’s Metal Slug anthologies and denied a place in Irem arcade collections. Any fan of Metal Slug should have this on hand, just to see where it all began, and how it could have gone.

November 16, 2007

The Metagame, Starring... Crotilo!

- The New York-based Totilo/Croal nexus (aha, 'Crotilo' is their new name, like 'Bennifer!') continues to blaze a trail for high quality game journalism, despite their obvious proximity to the Atlantic Ocean tending them to complete irrelevance (yes, I'm looking to start a West Coast/East Coast beef, what of it? Look out for my informative upcoming mixtape on the subject.)

In any case, MTV's Multiplayer blog has posted video from The Metagame, a real-life panel game show about... video games, which was filmed as part of MTV's Games Week going on this week.

As an accompanying blog post written by MTV's Stephen Totilo explains: "On Friday, November 2, I joined MTV News’ Tim Kash in a face-off of video arguments against Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal and author Heather Chaplin. We played “The Metagame,” a game show created by game designers Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of Gamelab, and Frank Lantz, co-founder of Area/Code."

Some of the questions, and results, were as follows: "Opinion: “Tetris” has more randomness than “Resident Evil”... Argument: Team MTV said it does. Team Brooklyn challenged... Verdict: Overruled — The audience agreed with Team Brooklyn." Or, indeed: "Opinion: “Virtua Fighter” is sexier than “Super Mario 64″... Argument: Team Brooklyn said it was. Team MTV said it wasn’t... Verdict: Upheld — The audience sided with Team Brooklyn." Brooklyn took it, folks.

DS' Most Wanted In The West Now Game Center CX?

- So, we only just posted a MicroLink to Chris Kohler's initial impressions of Game Center CX, which is the spoof-styled DS game based on the cult Japanese 'play through classic games' TV show - and now Kohler has outlined the mini-games and challenges in more detail over at Wired News.

As he explains: "Not only have the designers managed to come up with a clever assortment of retro-games-that-weren't, they've wrapped them all in an addictive umbrella game. You can load up and play in any game you like at any time, but there's always a certain challenge that you have to complete before you can move on and get more games." Titles include Galaga clone Cosmic Gate, platform action-er Karakuri Ninja Huggleman, and Dragon Quest spoof Guadia Quest.

What fascinates me about the game is that it's so 'meta' about the whole experience of playing games - as Kohler explains in his first impressions article: "Each game, of course, has secrets. You can enter in secret codes for powerups, or find Super Warp Gates on certain levels. To find these, you'll have to flip through back issues of Game Fan Magazine (no, not that Game Fan), which also contain previews of upcoming games, fictional Top Ten lists, and editorials from the fictional staff."

If you want to know more about the TV show it's based on, Ray Barnholt wrote to GSW a few months back linking to his own insanely detailed guide to Game Center CX, which is now in its 8th season, and he's just been updating with info/grabs from the shows from the new season - the newest includes Western platformer Flashback, which Arino crunches through in 16 hours straight, ouch. Awesome work. Now who's going to localize this for the West, since it's pretty unplayable if you don't know Japanese?

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Flower Girl

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Where there are games, there are conventions, and where there are conventions, there are people in character costumes – doing cosplay. The images of these devout fans in costume are part of gamer culture, especially online, where pictures of elaborate, pitch-perfect character clothing frequently make the rounds of blogs, forums and news sites. The people behind the pictures can be objects of wonderment, when the costume is good, or the butt of jokes, when it’s not so much. In either case, seeing a photograph of a person who has spent weeks or months preparing, through meticulous craftsmanship and hours of styling, to look – sometimes eerily – like a video game character can provoke plenty of curious reactions. Some wonder at the cosplayer’s efforts – despite spending hours and hours on gaming and game fandom ourselves, the level of detail on display makes some people wonder if the person’s quite well mentally. Have they begun to cross that line, beyond which fantasy and reality are becoming difficult to distinguish? Are they flagrantly attention-whoring, hoping to cash in on the attention and affection popular game characters receive? Are they high-strung detail-obsessives?

According to Adella, one cosplayer who’s earned a reputation in the close-knit hobbyists’ community, “there are plenty of psycho cosplayers.” But when she decided to do a series of Aeris costumes, it changed her life. And it wasn’t because of psycho cosplayers, but because of psycho gamers.

Expressing Fandom

Adella’s been doing cosplay for several years now, and creating outfits based on interesting-looking anime, game and comic book characters has become a favorite hobby for the conscientious 26-year-old design student, who hopes to work as a historical costumer one day. She adds, "The majority of cosplayers are just normal people having fun for a weekend... the crazy ones are definitely not the majority."

What appeals to her about cosplay? “I'm a really imaginative person, meaning I like things like role playing, reading books, drawing stories, et cetera,” she explains. “When I first heard about cosplay I viewed it as another creative outlet for me. A way to express fandom in a more involved way.” Since then, her image has become somewhat iconic among followers of the scene, and in associated internet communities. She’s been called "amazing," "the embodiment of Aeris," and an "inspiration," and she's also been accused of being an “insatiable attention whore,” a snob, a bitch, and much worse, in a tide of that particular brand of internet attention that makes it necessary for her to avoid reading about herself or making available her email address.

-Most of all, she’s known for the craftsmanship of her costumes, and for the detail in her self-styling – beyond the costume work itself, she’s also got a knack for getting the hairstyle just right, applying full-body paint to achieve the appropriate skin tone, using lenses to change the color of her eyes, even just a touch, for the full effect. Her photographs in Aeris cosplay are arresting in their likeness. But looking at her portfolio, it’s clear the costume design that earns her the majority of her online “fame” is not her best, most complex or even her most interesting one.

More Than A Passing Resemblance

Even Adella confesses, though, that one of the reasons behind her decision to cosplay as Aeris was the insistence of friends, who said she “resembled her a bit.” At the time, Aeris’ relatively simple pink dress and red jacket were accessible to Adella, who was still developing her sewing skills. So she did it, thinking it would be “funny,” even though back then she “hated Aeris.” When she first debuted her look, she says, “I made a bunch of friends with FF7 cosplayers and had a lot of fun. It was enjoyable seeing how many people liked my costume, and how many people I made smile, who in turn, made me smile.”

Still, she noticed something a touch off about the way some people reacted to her as “Aeris.” “A lot of the fans were really creepy,” she admits. “One guy, when I was walking back from the convention center in Long Beach to the Renaissance Hotel, tried to grab my arm and drag me over to the steps to ‘hang out’ with him. I hit him with my flower basket and ran! People kept running up, trying to jump on me, or grope me... like, because I was in costume, they had the right to just invade my personal space, or scream weird sh*t at me like ‘AERIS, BE MY LOVER!’ or whatever.”

Adella concedes that fans and other attendees often respond to people in costume by assuming they’re not quite ‘real’ people, or that because the costumed individual appears to be seeking attention, others assume that they can treat them however they please without consequences. But immediately Adella noticed that people reacted more strongly to Aeris – the beloved tragic heroine of Final Fantasy VII, whose death many define as a seminal moment in their gaming lives – than to any other costume she had done or would ever do. “[People’s reactions have] a lot to do with what costume I’m in,” she admits.

You Sucked, And You Died

For others, the character of Aeris represents a personification of what they feel is a distinct downturn in the focus of gaming as an era. She can be seen as the mascot of marathon cutscenes, of the story-versus-gameplay debate, the quintessential representative of the emo RPG aesthetic from which many, now that they’ve grown out of their stormy teens, are attempting to distance themselves. And when in costume, Adella began finding herself the object of that hostility. “I get a lot of rude comments from people,” she admits. “I've been pushed around a few times, and told stupid stuff like ‘you sucked and you died, bitch…’ stuff like that.”

It gets worse. “When I was at Anime Central, I think in 2004, maybe earlier... I was standing in the lobby of the hotel and talking to someone I had just met,” she remembers. “And some girl ran up behind me and grabbed my braid and just yanked, as hard as she could. My head was jerked back and my neck had this awful pain wrench through it. I whirled around and screamed, ‘don’t touch me!’ And she just goes ‘I... I just hate Aeris...’ and ran off. Like because she hates some fictitious character.. it's okay to physically assault someone dressed up like that character?”

-Muses Adella, “I think people obsessively hate her, or love her. I mean, you can really say that about any anime or game character – but Aeris instills a particular breed of passion in people. I've met a lot of fans in all the costumes I've made and in all the circles I've hung out in, but Aeris fans seem to be particularly... particular.

Adella began to expect the occasional odd reaction from her Aeris cosplay, but when pictures of her began circulating online, the attention she received from people who had the veil of anonymity to hide behind became far more extreme. Though her online costume portfolio has expanded to include a number of other characters and costumes that evolve in their complexity – DOA 2’s Helena, Castlevania’s Maria, Zelda’s Malon – it all began with the Aeris look. She’s received marriage proposals from men in foreign countries, and some “have just... walked up to me and hugged me because they ‘needed to hold Aeris,’” she says. “I usually just smile and let them do it because everyone needs hugs, I guess. If it makes him feel better to believe I am Aeris and hug me... that makes me happy. But it's still kind of creepy, because... well, I’m not Aeris!”

Not That Kind Of Person

With all the attention she was receiving – so much she couldn’t possibly reply in-depth to every piece of fan mail, field every cosplay question, or meet everyone who hoarded her photos on their hard drive – many people began to assume things about her personality. Says Adella – whose real name is actually Sarah – “I've gone through phases where I don't want anybody to contact me because I get fed up with all the fan mail and crazy sh*t that people send me… and then after a while, I'll be like, ‘okay ,maybe it won't be so bad now…’ and put my contact info up... then deal with it for a while, and then take it down again.”

She gets accusations of “[thinking she’s] cooler than sh*t”, being an “extreme suck-up” who “obsesses about stuff to the point of being creepy,” or “[looking] like a bitch in her pictures.” Adella explains that, when people don’t receive the reaction from her they wanted, they can become enraged. “Years ago, when I first started cosplay, I probably would have started talking up a storm about anything, but I'm so over people forcing themselves upon me that I just get nervous, I guess. And they post about how I ‘blew them off,’ or something. I'll say right here and now... I have never once blown someone off. Never. I am not that kind of person.”

-She quickly became a polarizing figure on online cosplay forums and related communities, even those she had never herself visited. Her friends would send her links to sites where she was being viciously lambasted by strangers. “When it first started happening, I was pissed,” she said. “I couldn't understand what I had done to people to deserve such asinine treatment. I would cry, and get sick, and be furious. After it just kept happening over and over I was like, ‘whatever.’ …I mean, I didn't do anything to people. I just went online and made a website so I could have fun and maybe share what I've done with others.”

It's Just A Hobby, People

For Adella, the pinnacle of her frustration happened when a former male friend, apparently upset that she’d chosen another boyfriend, tossed a nude picture of her modified in Photoshop (“the head, hand and belly button are me,” she admits, but says the rest of it is not her) into a firestorm of forum discussion surrounding her. People spammed that image across Adella’s own site. “It finally got to me,” she says, recalling how she spent a Thanksgiving holiday crying upstairs to her mother and aunt.

All of this not because of Adella, but because of Aeris Gainsborough, and the wave of fan sentiment the character still commands, a decade after the release of Final Fantasy VII. Adella says that people who meet her in real life after hearing about her online are surprised at her temperate personality. “[People say], ‘you’re so much cooler than everyone says!’ That’s because everyone has no idea what they’re talking about!”

“My enthusiasm for cosplay is deeply dampened,” she admits, although, with her seamstress skills greatly improved since the Aeris days, she continues working on convention costumes of other game characters. “I really have become jaded by convention people and con-goers, though. I get nervous and freaked out by anybody who approaches me for more than just a picture. It's just… after so long of so much, you get kind of jittery.”

So what would she say, to those inappropriate fans and cruel detractors? “Don't get your panties into a twist if someone online doesn't respond to you with all the vigor you had hoped. I'm not perfect, but I have never gone out of my way to hurt anybody or purposely defame someone's character, yet people are constantly driven to do it to me. Do unto others, is what I say. IT'S JUST. A. HOBBY. PEOPLE.”

She adds, “I'm not some majestic being. I'm just a dork named Sarah who wanted to play dress-up one day.”

And finally, flatly: “I am not doing Crisis Core Aeris.”

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

November 15, 2007

GameSetMicroLinks: Classic Albums In The Game Center

- Aha, now I've got going with this new-style links thing, it's time to step it up and feature a few more tidbits.

These include bizarre Nintendo DS imports, through TV shows you should be watching to get ready for Rock Band downloadable content, all the way to the dumbest quiz show-based game that we've yet to encounter.

Delicious, m'dears:

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Trilby: The Art of Theft'
Latest game by Zero Punctuation's Yahtzee, great art style.

Ludacris Added to the Impressive Cast of Gerard Butler's Game « FirstShowing.net
'The prisoners are actual convicts who are being "played" in a massive multiplayer game outside of the prison "walls" by gamers.'

First Impressions: Game Center CX | Game | Life from Wired.com
Sounds like a pretty cool DS game in its own right - Atluus?

Metacritic: Ontamarama (ds: 2007): Reviews
Talking of Atlus - blimey, you guys sneaked this one out, and it's a DS rhythm game, too. Lost in holiday rush, bigtime.

'Classic Albums' documentaries - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Looking forward to Rock Band? VH1 Classic has been showing 'Classic Albums' on The Who's 'Who's Next', one of the add-on Rock Band albums - a great primer that made me want to buy the album.

GameDaily - Media Coverage: Rumor Reporter
Tor Thorsen is an awesome editor, but doesn't GameSpot's Rumor Control exist to some extent so they can print outlandish rumors as headlines to get page views, THEN debunk them? I'm so not on board the rumor debunking express.

- National Console Support, Inc. | Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader
I'm highly amused by this DS title - doesn't it lose most of its point if you're humiliating... yourself?

paidContent.org - Marvel To Unveil Subscription-based Online Comics Outlet
Interesting as a comparison point for 'all you can eat' game subscriptions - $60 a year ain't bad, but it depends on what gets rotated in and out, when, and how new it is.

Katworks: Hero's Puzzle Path Game
'Watch the board animate to life as you disarm troublesome tricks and traps' - interesting concepts, if basic homebrew art.

The Secret Diary of Michael Pachter
In the general style of Fake Steve Jobs, only not really funny. Still, good idea!

Switchball - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
I don't think many people spotted that this recent XBLA addition (lots of fun, though some annoying frame tearing) was an IGF finalist in 2006 under the name Crazyball. Now you know!

Toronto Spawns Artsy Games Incubator

- Jim Munroe is a nice chap who runs the No Media Kings organization up in Toronto - you might have heard of him in relation to games because of his 'Freeware Rebellion' mini-doc, or his satirical GTA machinima 'My Trip To Liberty City'.

In any case, he just sent out his latest newsletter, and nestled quietly in there is word of the 'Artsy Games Incubator' project, a Toronto-based club that is 'sponsored by' Metanet (of N/N+ fame) and Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter, of course), and has a really refreshing angle on game making.

As Munroe explains: "A lot of artists I know have great ideas for videogames, but no programming skills. A lot of videogame makers I know wish there was more creativity and innovation happening in the field, but don’t know how best to foster it. I started the Artsy Games Incubator to try to address both issues."

As he explains: "We just had our first prototype set of sessions, with four of us meeting once a week for four weeks, and I kept notes. Using point-and-click game creation tools we made games and game elements for the sessions and invited feedback and discussion from the other members. It’s based on the writer’s-circle model that I’ve also used for movie making." It really looks like the participants came up with interesting stuff using tools like Adventure Game Studio and the N level editor - and it's a great cross-media idea in general. More of this, please.

COLUMN: HDR Knowledge - 'Common Threads: Series Loyalty and Straying from the Path'

[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we take a look at the root of series loyalty, and what it means to stray from the path of series continuity.]

All dedicated gamers have their favorite series: Final Fantasy, Halo, Dragon Quest, Ys, Metal Gear, Splinter Cell. No matter which one you pick to be your personal favorite, there are always elements that tie each entry in the series together to create a cohesive entity.

In the days of 8-bit gaming, series were the result of a continuing story, or the additional adventures of a well-loved character. Games like Super Mario Bros. and Rockman (Mega Man in North America and PAL territories) flourished through brand recognition has the years went on. Gamers came to feel comfortable with a series, usually for gameplay, and sometimes even aesthetics or story.

HDRKnov902.jpgAs time went on, developers started to become more inventive about how they approached the idea of a series iteration. Final Fantasy is an excellent early example. While Final Fantasy II for the Family Computer offered much of the same gameplay and atmosphere that fans of the first game had come to expect from a sequel, the game’s story was completely disconnected from the previous iteration, offering totally new characters, challenges, and even world. Final Fantasy may not have been the first series to change what gamers expect out of a series, but it was one of the best.

Castlevania has had a winding history as well. While the first two games starred the most famous vampire killer in the Belmont family, Simon, the third game in the series introduced his ancestor Trevor as the game’s protagonist. Within those three games, the gameplay also varied, going back and forth between action platformer and action adventure. While the game kept the series “in the family”, so to speak, for several titles, the series finally strayed from the Belmont family in favor of John Morris (the purported son of Quincey Morris from Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The series would continue to stray from and return to the Belmont family in later installments, and much of it only served to confuse the issue of series cohesiveness further.

Over complicating the entire discussion is the distinction between franchise and series. While the motivations behind some series are noble (Inafune dreamed of making a sequel to Rockman), the modern existence of the series is ruled by money. As game development costs rise each year, publishers become more and more allergic to new ideas and change. Square Enix has had to weather such a storm, expanding the Final Fantasy name and sticking it on games that otherwise would have no resemblance to the series otherwise.

HDRKnov903.jpgWhere in the Playstation 1 era, Squaresoft flourished with a wealth of unique IPs, today’s Square Enix is far more afraid, sticking the name Final Fantasy on all its biggest titles. And who can blame them? Financials have shown that fans of the company are not interested in games that don’t bear the name (evidenced by the lackluster sales of It’s a Wonderful World).

In the case of creating a distinction between series and franchise, and thereafter creating a solid thread that ties a series together, the existence of IP expansion tends to make things a little ugly. Even if we confine ourselves to the simple idea that all “numbered” installments are part of the main continuity, this excludes Castlevania, Contra, Metal Gear, and even Rockman.

What really is the common strand that brings a series together? What defines a game as part of the main continuity? Final Fantasy defined its main entries by high fantasy, as well as thematic story elements such as the crystals, and a struggle between light and dark. Final Fantasy VII changed a lot of this, by introducing steam punk to the mix, and largely doing away with the crystal premise entirely (which had been missing in previous iterations as well). The conflict became far more personal, and much of the high fantasy disappeared from the series.

The high fantasy in the Final Fantasy series reared its head again in Final Fantasy IX for the Playstation 1, which was designed as a Final Fantasy for traditionalists, and even reintroduced the crystals to the storyline. Final Fantasy XI was an even larger departure from the other entries, as it retained the thematic characteristics of the story, but the game itself was no longer a single player RPG, but a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG, in the vein of World of Warcraft.

Other than Square Enix’s declaration that this online game was the eleventh installment in the series, Final Fantasy XI shunned much of what made the series proper so appealing in the past, changing the structure of the gameplay, the structure of character progression, and even the basics by which the player interacted with the world.

HDRKnov901.jpgNintendo’s Metroid series changed more considerably when it finally made its way into the foray of 3D on the Gamecube. While past Metroid games had been 2D action platformers using the same viewpoint as its contemporaries, the new Metroid, dubbed Prime by developers Retro Studios, was presented from a first person view, akin to shooters like Quake and Halo.

When the game was first revealed, many long time Metroid fans demanded and explanation for such a drastic shift in the gameplay. Some even declared that Metroid proper was dead, and this new series was nothing more than a shadow of what 3D Metroid could have been.

Retro and Nintendo fired back with a simple explanation: both companies felt that Metroid was not defined by its viewpoint or its graphics. Such changes were only cursory and did not take away from what really made Metroid: a sense of exploration, and isolation. Thematically, the argument was air tight. The series still featured heroine Samus Aran as well as her long time enemies the Space Pirates, and of course the alien metroids. Many still condemned the series, and some outright ignore its current iterations.

For developers, it can be hard to understand what it means for a specific iteration to be part of a series. Many times developers want to take a series in a new direction for the sake of their own sanity, and for the sake of growing the series to be something more. The danger, of course, is in angering fans. Nintendo has been given a tremendous amount of latitude when defining what made a Super Mario game. The series’ progression from Mario Bros., to Super Mario Bros., to even Super Mario Galaxy, the series has time and time again thrown out what it considers the Mario canon and given us a whole new world to explore.

HDRKnov904.jpgWhy do Mario fans let such inconsistencies fly, while small changes like Raiden’s appearance in Metal Gear Solid 2 cause such fervor. Is it the make up of that series’ fans, or is it the doing of developers? Perhaps the key is in defining the series hallmarks at a young age. Castlevania had the benefit of big gameplay changes within its first four games. When Symphony of the Night finally went the exploration route after experimental tinkering in both Castlevania II and Dracula X, gamers were likely more receptive to the drastic shift. It probably also helped that many current Castlevania fans started playing the series from Symphony’s release.

Perhaps game series with a very consistent make-up from game to game tend to attract fans that expect a specific type of atmosphere and gameplay, and want it over and over again. They consider the series’ synonymous with a certain type of gameplay, story and protagonist. While Super Mario Galaxy seems on its surface like a strong departure from its past entries, each game does still adhere to certain thematic and gameplay related elements far beyond simply ‘jumping on mushrooms with eyes.’

Maybe the key to giving yourself room for reinvention in later iterations is not to adhere particularly to a given concept from the very beginning. By constantly changing what people expect out of a series, it becomes difficult for gamers to complain that some stale and stagnant gameplay mechanic defines the series, and thus allows developers to continue being creative, and reinventing the series their fans love and desire.

[Nayan Ramachandran sometimes strays from the path, but that's because he has the attention span of a gnat. He also writes his own blog, HDRL.]

November 14, 2007

GameSetMicroLinks: The Serious Revolution Is Here

- Aha, trying something different this time with GameSetMicroLinks - seeing if I can add relevant gaming bookmarks to Del.icio.us and then export them periodically - for a whole lot of random game link love.

Doesn't look quite as spectacular as the other method, visually, but seems to work OK - here's the first fruits of that tactic, dear GSW reader:

Blue's News: GameTap's Re/Visioned: Tomb Raider & Activision
After the first season's animated mini-series - 'Episodes in Season Two will revolve around the worlds and characters featured in Activision’s most iconic titles such as Pitfall, Kaboom and Pressure Cooker.'

Costume GET!: Holiday Costume Outlook
Wataru Maruyama's quirky blog on costumes in games is still going strong.

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part One): Revolution
'Revolution was a total conversion mod of the popular PC game Neverwinter Nights modeled on Colonial Williamsburg.'

EQ2 Deserves a Second Look | Madness & Games
'The game may have a few rough edges, but the team has shown a commitment to ongoing, high quality improvements.'

Pop Cosmopolitanism » tacit epistemologies in WoW forums
'Either game forums like these tend to draw folks with a more nuanced stance toward knowledge or forums like these tend to foster that stance in folks drawn to them.'

Tale of Tales » Interview with IGF Chairman Simon Carless
Yes, it's me, talking about the state of independent games. Hopefully in a rational manner.

The Independent Gaming Source: Cave Story Production Materials
Aha, '...a collection of screens and concepts from early in the game’s development.'

- Pictures from the Sega Private Fall Show 2007 « Arcade Heroes
Including Derby Owner's Club 2008, and a Japanese arcade version of Uno.

the-inbetween.com [ Facebook, Game Platform]
'The best we can hope for is something new. A new game built on top of all these social networks. The userbase is there. The technology is there. Somebody just needs to make an investment.'

RePlay Magazine on Raw Thrills' arcade game success
How Eugene Jarvis is doing now: "Video game maker Raw Thrills has just issued a new production release of The Fast & Furious Drift, bringing the total number of units to roll off the factory line up to the 3,500 mark.'

THQ XBLA Title Information Overload | XBLArcade.com
Frozen Codebase's second game revealed, Elements Of Destruction: 'You are a force of nature. Move and manipulate Mother Nature to your design.'

damned vulpine » Docubloggers on the UT Videogame Archive
Video of Garriott and Spector's Texas archive, and a new part-time job helping to maintain it.

SpringerLink: 'The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: A Meta-analytic Review of Positive and Negative Effects of Violent Video Games'
Only a synopsis, but: 'Results from the current analysis did not support the conclusion that violent video game playing leads to aggressive behavior.'

OMG, It's Alarmingly These Are Not L@vesick Zombies

- Aha, now here's an interesting email that is worth passing on to you pretentious GameSetWatch readers:

"Thought I would share a curious new artwork/game from me, Jason Nelson (yes I like to name myself) Ten levels of abstract art meets zombie play, with absurd video game theory videos between levels. - title: alarmingly these are not l@vesick zombies."

He continues: "oh, and all thoughts on this bizarre new creation are more than appreciated and of course feel more than free to share anywhere, anywhere, me likes to the viral spread of strange artwork.... or revisit: game, game, game and again game."

That first title (Game, Game, Game, Game) was recently reviewed at Play This Thing!, and mentioned a bunch of other places, for being a title that "...combines the simple platform mechanics of Mario with sketch/crayon/scribble graphics (hanging together nicely) and post-post-modern lyric poetry. Great audio and video Easter eggs are scattered throughout." Yes, there is some artworldkwak here, but I find it refreshingly playful.

Surfer Girl: Keeping Up With The Drama, Part 3

- Well, we've talked about her before, and we're going to do it again, thanks to the volume and recent amped-up insanity of the rumors and likely truth emanating from the 'Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars' blog. So let's start with some highlights of recent posts.

- The 'November 11th things' post claims that 'Everquest is coming to PS3' (likely in some version of the franchise), 'Big Huge Games' Wii title is God the Game' (leftfield, but sure!), and 'The game counterpart of the 2009 Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg HBO miniseries The Pacific (the follow-up to 2001's Band of Brothers) is being developed by Delirious Games' (interesting, the company site reveals the company is co-helmed by ex-Climax LA boss Erik Gloersen. Very plausible.)

- As for other notables, there have been some pretty funny spoof rumors, including 'DaNcE DaNcE KLAXONS from Konami', an entire 'inside Ubisoft' post which looks to have a good, if cynical insider grasp on issues at the firm, and a couple more 'games that never were', Ubisoft's 'Dirty Work' and 'Campus', the former of which was meant to be a GTA killer, and a screenshot/info on Digital Anvil's Project Enwor - definitely legit and not previously released. Hmm, another Microsoft-related leaked project, eh?

- An earlier round-up of comment responses has a whole bunch of vaguer information, but I thought this was an interesting list of games that are worth checking out in 2008 from the 'Girl': "Next year, I'm looking forward to Brutal Legend, Blocks, LMNO, Alive, Hail to the Chimp, Alan Wake, Prince of Persia, Heavy Rain, fl0wer, Getaway, Duke Nukem Forever (not that I cared for the previous games, but you have to wonder what was done with ten years of development), Max Payne 3, thatgamecompany's third PS3 game, The Outsider, Lego Batman, No More Heroes, Mushroom Men, Spore, as well as I few others I have forgotten."

Finally, there was just a whole 'hijacking of the site' by a Polish hacker, which resulted in two of the Resistance 2 design doc flow diagrams being briefly hosted, and personal info about Surfer Girl allegedly being leaked.

Now order has been restored, with some claims that this third party independently hacked them. Not true, I would hazard, since other Resistance 2 elements have already been made available by the 'Girl' herself. So overall - still a bizarre attention grab, and the readiness to answer ANY random question from clueless commenters is a bit disturbing, but still filled with fascinating and genuine insider info. Keep it up!

[UPDATE: Although I am starting to get concerned that some of the peripheral information, besides the Microsoft and Ubisoft stalwarts, is Google-able - for example 'God: The Game' from Big Huge Games turns up on an unfortunate artist's portfolio. This is the second time I've noticed this recently, and help might explain the wide reach of rumors across multiple companies. Though plenty of other things aren't Google-able, of course.]

The Most Expensive Video Games... Evah?

- We've linked to rare game auction crazies Gamesniped.com before, but a recent feature from them rounds up 'The World's Most Expensive Video Games' in relatively reasonable, accurate form - and is therefore well worth checking out.

As is explained in the intro: "Keep in mind however, that there are more rare items than what is on this list. Prototypes and Betas are by nature, one of a kind. However, the demand aren’t there for them like the games on this list. This list is a combination of rarity, price and demand." So they've tried to keep to actual production copies of games - which is a good way to do it.

Mind you, some of the production numbers are stupidly tiny - the top game listed, '1990 Nintendo World Championships: Gold Edition', has a known run of just 26 copies, and it's revealed that "...there’s at least six of these in collectors hands that I can confirm." Personally, I like 'Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash' on the VIC-20, because it's on cassette tape, which is adorably old school - and it has an interesting history, being published in obscurity without Richard Garriott's permission back in 1983 or so.

[UPDATE: Shih Tzu's comment is so interesting that it deserves an update to include it: "The most interesting one I ever came across was a shop in Akihabara selling a special edition of Seaman on the Dreamcast for 100,000 yen (roughly $900 or so). The shopkeeper's note read: "Limited to 300 copies and distributed only within the company, this was created to commemorate the 74th birthday of late Sega president Isao Okawa." (Note: Okawa died in March of 2001 at the age of 74.) "Not only is Seaman's voice that of Mr. Okawa himself, but Seaman's responses to questions reflect the president's own feelings." Sadly, Mr. Okawa's feelings will likely remain forever veiled to me, because I happen to like money."]

November 13, 2007

GameSetIndie: Kongregate's Plans, Noitu Love's Sequel

- Over at big sister site Gamasutra today, we posted a couple of items that would be of interest to you indie-centric harridans hanging around at GSW. And I will tell you what they are!

Firstly, we posted 'Q&A: Kongregate Announces Indie Funding, Talks Innovation', revealing that "social flash gaming portal Kongregate has announced five development studios funded from $20,000 to $100,000 to create original, larger-scale Flash games exclusive to the site."

Needless to say, this is pretty interesting for the Flash game scene - which we recently profiled from a money-making perspective on Gamasutra. And what's further interesting to me is that the game titles they've funded all sound alternative and non-cookie-cutter - though the proof will be in the playing, of course.

For the record, they are: Dinowaurs, by Intuition Games (and previously mentioned on GSW); Remnants of Skystone from Flipline Studios; Lila Dreams, by Creatrix Games; Zening, from developer Michael King, and Argue (About Everything) from development duo Adam Schroeder and Roger Bankus - and descriptions are in the Q&A.

Also, we're continuing the 'Road To The IGF' mini-interview feature set on Gama, and the latest is 'Road To The IGF: Konjak's Throwback Noitu Love 2', in which "...we talk to Joakim Sandberg of Konjak, developer of the action beat-em-up Noitu Love 2, inspired heavily by classic Treasure and Konami titles." Lest you forget, here's a preview of a boss battle in the game, which shows how one guy can create something really special, in an extremely and happily retro type fashion.

Spacetime Takes Time To Check Chinese Game Scene

- More neat development blogs (which need an RSS feed, ahem!) from the folks at Spacetime Studios, and a recent one from VP and art director Jake Rodgers is called 'Made In China, and deals with a trip to GDC China, development partners in Beijing, and the fascinating Chinese game development scene.

Rodgers gives a good description of Shanghai as a city, for starters: "To the westerners (like myself) who haven’t been to China before, witnessing Shanghai leaves you a bit punch drunk, even if you’ve seen Blade Runner. I thought I was going to a communist country, but it appeared to be the work of capitalists – maybe more than any US city I’ve been to. That is, capitalists on Red Bull maybe, and riding a magic dragon. There’s so much new construction that it gives a singular message of rapid but designed progress."

He also passes on some interesting and 'on the ground' feedback about game artsourcing: "Yes, it still makes economic sense to outsource art in China, but the returns are shrinking in some ways. For example, the sheer value of money- RMB vs USD is trending in favor of the RMB, something consistent over the last few years. Because of competition and increasing costs of studios located in the major coastal cities and Beijing, the cost has become prohibitive to the ‘guys getting together to start a studio’." Lots more good info in the piece. (Via We Can Fix That With Data.)

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Whatever Happened To Artdink?

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, sometimes by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. And sometimes not. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the elusive developer Artdink and their suitably surreptitious return to the mecha gaming genre.]

artdink_logo.jpgIn the middle of 1995 an interesting entry into the mecha gaming pantheon was unleashed upon an unsuspecting Japanese public. It was a mecha game set in the third person that didn’t actually allow you direct control of your creation. Instead, you programmed its AI to fight on your behalf. Now, as I write this several young games designers are probably running for the holy water and garlic, but having a game based around programming actually worked.

The game was Carnage Heart and it was so successful that it spawned a total of four other games. The developer responsible for this otherworldly combination of programmed centric design was that of Artdink, and it’s only until recently that they’ve re-tried their hand at mecha gaming - though this time they’ve had to work within the biggest mecha license of them all.

Artdink came into being in the middle of 1986. Despite the more widely known Carnage Heart series (as covered in detail in a separate column), Artdink's gaming output has been predominantly non-mecha orientated. Specifically, their A-Train games have garnered quite the following in Japan and in many ways define the company in the minds of gamers (though my personal favourite is the titular "No One Can Stop Mr. Domino").

Since the release of the various Carnage Heart games, Artdink hadn't made mecha games and never ventured into the full-blown action orientated gameplay the genre is known for (admittedly the OKE's in Carnage Heart were potent war machines, the player wasn't in direct control of them). This changed recently though when Artdink joined forces with Bandai Namco and were given the opportunity to work within the Gundam pantheon.

As mecha franchises go, Gundam is definitely the biggest and the most iconic. Though like all series, gaming adaptations are often a mixed bag (something that a lot of the Western press relish on when it comes to the poorer entries, overlooking those that are of critical worth). Considering that Artdink had never done anything like this before, it was a big risk on Bandai Namco's part, but it's definitely paid off.

gundam_battle_tactics.jpg At the time of writing, Artdink have released three Gundam action orientated games, of which the latest is still in the Japanese charts and selling well. The only slightly bizarre aspect of these games (a screenshot from the latest of which is pictured) is the platform that Bandai Namco chose to release them on.

The PSP has had a rather surreal existence, vehemently denied by Nintendo acolytes yet still present regardless and even picking up momentum (the recent Japanese sales figures have been nothing short of spectacular). Like all gaming systems, there are good games tucked within its library and despite Sony's immeasurable hubris, there are developers embracing what the platform can offer (which is no bad thing from a gaming point of view).

Each of Artdink's Gundam games have been exclusively released on the PSP (Artdink also did a recent version of Carnage Heart on the PSP too). Interestingly, they were also the first fully action orientated mecha games on the system (even the industry stalwart From Software were unable to release a version of Armored Core with full player control, if anything they went down the Carnage Heart route with their first release of Armored Core Formula Front). Considering the lack of coverage on these gaming gems, I've decided to give them a place in the blogosphere sun.

Gundam Battle Tactics (2005)

gundam_battle_tactics.jpgThis was released shortly after the 2005 Tokyo Game Show and unlike the title suggests, the game wasn't overly "tactics" driven but rather a straightlaced third person shooter with a surprisingly solid multiplayer. Of all the Gundam games that preceded Battle Tactics it's closest cousin would be that of Lost War Chronicles on the PlayStation 2 (which was strangely never released abroad).

In that, the game's speed and lock-on orientated combat were very much reminiscent of Lost War Chronicles. If anything Battle Tactics was faster and offered a finer level of mobile suit control to the player (to the point you were expected to utilise the ballistic arcs of your shots to greater effect).

The game is set resolutely within the One Year War era and is entirely ground based. The player takes the role of a grunt and has to work their way up the mobile suit food chain through successive missions until they are piloting one of the several eponymous Gundams.

Despite the very straightforward but admittedly solid approach to the Gundam series, the more potent confrontations and especially in multiplayer did become moderately tactical as you used the menu of attacks to wrong foot your opponent. Using weaker attacks to lead the target and then set them up for a few well placed beam rifle rounds. So, the "tactics" moniker was an apt one but not something your average gamer would necessarily pick up on, which considering the portable nature (as in short bursts of play time) of the game is hardly surprising.

Due to the game's success, Bandai Namco funded a sequel and Artdink duly accepted the challenge. Though this time things wouldn't be quite so rosy.

Gundam Battle Royale (2006)

gundam_battle_royale.jpgFollowing on from the success of Battle Tactics, Artdink improved the game engine further and included a more power gaming/RPG centric foundation to the action based missions. Conidering that the first game had been far better than many had expected, Artdink did have their work cut out for them. Especially considering that Armored Core Formula Front International was now available and offering full "manual" control to the player. Resting on their laurels wasn't really an option.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much what they did. This isn't to say that Battle Royale is bad just really unbalanced. Specifically, the new RPG element where you accrued points to upgrade the abilities of your mobile suit was a tad harsh on the player. Admittedly, a similar system was available in Battle Tactics but it wasn't as potent and most importantly didn't massively penalise the player for the lack of necessary upgrades.

It was entirely possible to be placed in a mission where one shot from the enemy would mean death and you lacked the firepower to return the favour. This resulted in the player having to die repeatedly to earn enough points to reach a critical mass in upgrades so as to progress.

Though once you got to that point the game did open up but it wasn't long until all your hard work was thwarted once again, when you ventured into the Zeta Gundam story arc.

Unlike the first game, Battle Royale covered more of the UC timeline which meant there was a gaming cut off point after the One Year War finished. Stripping you of all your upgrades and to go through the whole "die repeatedly to progress" process all over again.

The game did sell but many were concerned with the unbalanced nature of the upgrade system, so Artdink went back to the drawing board and started work on the next entry in the series.

Gundam Battle Chronicle (2007)

gundam_battle_chronicle.jpgThis was released in October of this year and has been, quite frankly, selling bucketloads. Artdink learned from Battle Royale and massively toned down the upgrades system and even produced a training mode to help newer players. Consequently, players returned to the series in droves. It also helped that Battle Chronicle covered a sizable chunk of the UC timeline narrative this time around and even included the lesser known side-stories such as Gundam Sentinel (which hadn't been given a gaming treatment up and till this point, an unfortunate omission considering Hajime Katoki's effect on gaming with his designwork for the Virtual On series).

Admittedly, you now have to play through the whole One Year War and Zeta story arcs again, with a lot of the missions being fairly similar (despite the graphical improvements obviously) - but it's not the chore it was in Battle Royale. If anything, they built upon what made Battle Tactics so compelling and distilled that down further as well - as adding a huge amount of content in the game's backend.

In addition, the multiplayer improved exponentially due to the volume and variety of mobile suits on offer. Overall, Battle Chronicle is the definitive entry in the series and Artdink have managed the host work better than a lot of the in-house Bandai Namco teams to boot.

fin

Considering that the appalling Target in Sight is in many ways similar to the Gundam Battle series, Artdink proved that games development is also about implementing your design properly and in a way that people can appreciate (note to Bandai Namco: don't release a game at a console's launch that operates at less than 15fps, it makes people's eyes bleed).

Like with all good mecha games, the above don't have a Western release date set. Admittedly, Battle Royale isn't exactly something that gamers should be worried about missing out on but the other two titles are something that the PSP's library could do with abroad.

It's also worth pointing out that due to Artdink's success, Capcom followed in their footsteps and ported the successful Gundam SEED arcade game to the PSP. In many ways Artdink - a novice in the mecha action genre, don't forget - proved that the PSP was a viable gaming platform for mobile suits to stomp around on.

[NOTE: For those that are wondering who did the eyecatching box-art to these titles, it was none other than Naochika Morishita.]

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

November 12, 2007

GameSetPlaying: The Holiday Games You Missed?

- Thought it was time to waft through a few games we've been playing here at GameSetWatch Towers, since it's the height of holiday game release season.

Although the last one of these was only a couple of weeks back, there are a surprising amount of titles sneaking out there that deserve a second glance or a little more publicity, and this rundown happens to reference a few of these - and one game that isn't quite so great, aw. Avast:

- Neves (Yuke's, DS)
This seems to have been distinctly ignored thus far by reviewers, which is a shame, since it's a genuinely different DS title than the normal 'brain training clone' crop. As my colleague Christian discussed with Yuke's in a recent interview, it's a tangram-based puzzler that's officially licensed from Japanese physical puzzle veterans Hanayama, and I find the tangram manipulation pretty playable using a stylus. So sure, you're just moving triangles to make pictures - but it's a lot of fun.

- Beautiful Katamari (Bandai Namco, Xbox 360)
The latest non-Takahashi-helmed version of Katamari, on the other hand, has been noticed - but has got mixed reviews overall, with the hardcore particularly deriding it for being a 'more of the same' jaunt, and a third sequel to a game that shouldn't really have had one sequel. All somewhat true - but it's still a complete blast to play and replay. The main issues are some harsh gating to unlock free play, and some pay-to-play unlockable content that's allegedly already on the disc - but magic facsimiled a few times is still a bit magick-y, guv'nor.

- - Phase (Harmonix, iPod)
Several intelligent people, including but not limited to Wired.com's Chris Kohler, have done excellent impressions of this iPod game already - and I'm looking forward to the GDC lecture on creating it - but it bears repeating that this is just a killer game app for video iPods. The art, by Aaron Stewart, is new-cartoon adorable, and if you liked Frequency and Amplitude (yesh!) you will go a little crazy over the easy playability of Phase. And infinite custom soundtracks, blimey. Networked high scores through Gracenote next, please? (Also, ex-coworker Jane Pinckard has a song on the demo soundtrack, and Aaron Stewart has the best Halloween costume evah.)

- Viva Pinata Party Animals (Krome/Microsoft, Xbox 360)
Ending with a dis-recommendation - we tried a four-player party match of this at the weekend, and as can be seen by the collected reviews, this title didn't quite get it together. The main collective complaints were over the repeated, slightly meandering racing game section, and the mixed quality of the minigame sections themselves. Oh, and the text/menus are really small if you don't play on a big TV. Still, Krome gets points for moxy by using the phrase 'ground pound' in the instructions for one of the games - how much more Mario/Mario Party-esque can you get?

OK, so that's our random set of games that you might or might not care about. So what are you playing right now, and what should people be focusing on in the holiday rush? Oh, and if you say Portal again again, we'll have to kill you, you realize?

Reactrix Gets THQ, Xbox To Pay For Kids To Stomp On Them

- If any of you folks have been to major malls recently, and spotted hordes of kids jumping up and down on a lighted area on the floor, you might have been witnessing Reactrix, which is a game-like interactive advertising projection.

And yes, it's been around for a while, but they just put out a new press release announced that the firm "...has secured partnerships from top tier gaming properties, Microsoft Xbox and THQ, to develop multiple creative advertising campaigns that will drive casual gamers into stores this holiday season."

Firstly, here's, the “Jump In” ad for Xbox, which "...features Reactrix’ Brand Positioning (BPS) technology - when a shopper steps on an Xbox logo, graphics pop up that direct them to the closest retailer featuring the product, further enhancing the shoppers' experience and driving sales."

In addition: "THQ, Inc., the leading worldwide developer and publisher of interactive entertainment software, partnered with Reactrix to not only drive consumers to retailers this holiday season, but to also add a powerful branding element to their newest gaming releases. Reactrix created unique, interactive game-play campaigns for releases like “Spongebob’s Atlantis Squarepants,” “Ratatouille Food Frenzy,” “Avatar: The Burning Earth,” and “Cars Maternational” to help differentiate these titles from their home video and DVD campaign counterparts."

Looks like the THQ one has a bit of a Warlords type feel to it, or something. To clarify - you can actually affect objects on the floor by stepping on them and kicking them, and it calculates the physics to make all the object bounce off each other, so it's pretty neat tech. It'd definitely be cool to see much more complex games using Reactrix - though one suspects the hardware will be a bit expensive for home rollout in the short term, heh.

Rebalancing Super Street Fighter II HD For XBLA

- The Capcom blog (just one of a number of high-quality publisher and developer blogs springing up) has moved to Blog.Capcom.com, logically, and along with the move has published 'Behind-the-Scenes: Rebalancing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix' from Backbone designer/producer David Sirlin.

As is normal with Sirlin's work, he brings an extremely analytical eye to the area, and I applaud the attempts to make the basic moves just a little easier to bust: "Inside Street Fighter, there is a wonderful battle of wits, but many potential players are locked out of experiencing it because they can’t Dragon Punch or do Fei Long’s flying kicks, or whatever other joystick gymnastics they require. I’d like to reverse this trend. There’s only so far I can go with this and still call it SF2, but wherever I could, I turned the knob towards easy execution of moves."

As Sirlin explains: "Let’s emphasize good decision making—the true core of competitive games—and get rid of artificially difficult commands... This will get more players interested in the game, eventually leading to more competition. It will also get players past the awkward beginner phase faster and into the intermediate phase where the interesting strategy starts to emerge." This is just part 1 of a series on the changes - and as with Puzzle Fighter, he's making sure to keep the original mode in as well as the enhanced new ones.

November 11, 2007

Digital Game Canon's First 10 Get Transcripts, Audio

- Over at the IGDA Preservation SIG, Andrew Armstrong has put up a new weblog post with a full multimedia presentation regarding the Digital Game Canon, including audio and transcriptions from the Game Developers Conference lecture introducing 'gaming hall of fame' picks for an initial 10 games.

As explained: "At GDC 2007 the first Digital Game Canon event occurred, put on by Henry Lowood, head of the Game Preservation SIG, and with a panel consisting of him, Steve Meretzky, Christopher Grant, Matteo Bittanti and Warren Spector...These are the slides and audio track from the event, as well as a transcript of the audio. You can listen to the audio and watch the slides online (with some minor errors) too. You can find more on the Digital Game Canon project and included games at the IGDA wiki."

Also, Gamasutra has followed up with detailed histories of many of the games, including creator interview - specifically, of SpaceWar, of Zork, of Civilization, and of Star Raiders (Also, feel free to ping us if you want to help write the other ones for Gamasutra, since we've come to somewhat of an impasse.)

Hopefully, there will be a second Digital Game Canon ten (hopefully to include Pac-Man, as pictured?) at GDC 2008 - though I think that's still to be confirmed. In any case, the SIG folks such as Andrew Armstrong have compiled a list of historical articles which puts together a bunch of the other Gamasutra pieces we've run over the past few years documenting the history of the game biz.

Blip Festival 2007 Looks Bigger, Better, Yummier

- I believe I've mentioned this year's festival once, but we got a press reminder and it's worth mentioning again: Blip Festival 2007 is taking over New York (or at least, the chiptune-happy bits!) again at the end of this month - specifically November 29 through December 2, 2007 (Thursday - Sunday), this time at the Eyebeam Atelier, with nightly musical performances and special daily exhibitions/showings.

We covered 2006's Blip Festival in voluminous detail, thanks to it being awesome, and here's the info on the new iteration: "The Blip Festival 2007 (www.blipfestival.org) is a four-day celebration of electronic music and art made with vintage videogame equipment, including Game Boys, Ataris, Commodore 64s and other tricked out Old School gear sure to appeal to everyone’s inner geek. Presented by The Tank and 8bitpeoples and sponsored in part by Make Magazine, Singha Beer, Element Labs and Periscope Entertainment with additional funding from The Greenwall Foundation, this year’s extravaganza follows up on the success of 2006’s inaugural outing with an even larger venue to showcase its expanded roster of over 40 artists and musicians from the US, Japan, Europe and South America – many appearing for the first time ever in the United States."

The schedule isn't up just yet, but here's the artist list - it's also noted: "With nightly concerts, daytime screenings and workshops, and a group gallery show “B I T M A P : as good as new” presented in association with the festival at vertexList Gallery, The Blip Festival 2007 brings together the biggest international names in the field of low-bit art and chiptune music for an opportunity to be seen and heard in the epicenter of the creative world." Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins has promised to cover the event for GSW again this year, so watch out for that.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 11/10/07

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The holiday season for game mags is right upon us, and that means plenty of review covers, ad pages, Ken Levine interviews (he and/or his game appear in nearly every mag this month except Nintendo Power)...and, for most titles, circulation statements.

Around this time of year, you'll often see mags publish an official-looking circulation statement toward the rear. These statements of ownership have been popping up in U.S. mags since the early 1970s, and for the dedicated statistician they're a treasure trove of information -- especially if the mag in question doesn't otherwise release any official circulation figures. So why do publishers print them? It's the law -- required by the U.S. Postal Service if the mag wants to take advantage of their special Periodicals Class mailing rates, which most US game titles do. (The exact numbers are way too complex to get into here, but we're talking about a postage discount of up to 40 percent compared to plain ol' regular mail, depending on assorted circumstances.)

Despite the discount, not all game mags go for the Periodicals Class discount. This can be for one of two reasons: it's not worth all the extra paperwork and USPS bureaucracy, and/or the publisher just doesn't want to make its circulation records public at all. Still, these statements are valuable for mag dorks like myself -- I'll list circulation figures for all the mags below, then comment on historical trends in some future column.

For now, let's check out all the US mags of the past few weeks. Prepare for more BioShock coverage than you ever imagined...

Nintendo Power December 2007

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Cover: Super Smash Bros. Melee
Average Distribution 2007: Not listed (Nintendo of America never used Periodicals, but Future does, so expect a statement next year)

Here it is! The first Future-published issue of Nintendo Power! And...it's not much different at all, actually. If it weren't for new EIC Chris Slate's introductory editorial (his Mii is quite fetching) and the fact that the back page advertises the "Holiday 2007" issue, I may not have noticed that anything had changed. (The masthead lists both Future and Nintendo editorial and art folks, indicating that this was probably a "transition" issue while Future gets its local production all ramped up and squared away.)

Mr. Slate writes both cover features (Brawl and Mario & Sonic at the Olympics), with Chris Hoffman contributing a Trauma Center piece and Chris Shepperd playing backup with a Mario Galaxy feature. There are entirely too many Chrises on this magazine. Someone needs to switch to his middle name, stat. Top interviews this time around are with Michel Ancel (who comes off as an incredibly nice guy) and Treasure head Masato Maegawa.

Overall, diehard fans will not be disappointed, nor may they notice that anything's amiss at all. I'm looking forward to Future injecting more of itself into future issues, tho.

GamePro December 2007

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Cover: Super Mario Galaxy
Average Distribution 2007: 221,670 (219,766 paid)

It seems like almost every issue of GamePro this year has had one major event or another behind it, and this one's no exception, 'cos it marks the departure of Wes "Brother Buzz" Nihei from the magazine. Wes joined the mag with Issue 2 in 1989 and was EIC for most of it, serving as editor at large for the past couple years as he eased into retirement. He's a nice guy (and I'm not just saying that because he gave me my first office job in games), and I wish 'im the best.

Anyway, this is the biggest GP in a while (144 pages), and the extra edit pages really make a difference in making the issue seem "full." The editors get pretty BioShock-happy in the news section, interviewing Ken Levine and taking the opportunity to sing the game's praises in a couple other small soundbite-like pieces. The Mario Galaxy piece is nicer than Nintendo Power's -- in a way, GP takes NP's style of feature and does it better a lot of the time, as this one seems like it has tons more information and presents it in a more engaging way visually. Legendary, which you last saw on Hardcore Gamer's cover as "Legendary: The Box," gets a more traditional GI-style feature which is nice but not quite as meaty. Afterwards, there are the reviews -- tons of 'em!

Electronic Gaming Monthly December 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Ninja Gaiden 2
Average Distribution 2007: 631,524 (629,223 paid)

Something seemed a bit fishy to me about release dates, and this issue of EGM confirms it -- Ziff will be publishing a "Holiday 2007" issue Future-style this year, the first time they've tried it since 2004. Having 13 issues a year has a benefit to the reader, of course, but chiefly it's in the publisher's best interest because it means two issues during the holiday shopping season instead of one -- and one more opportunity to reap in holiday advertising dollars from game publishers than before. A win-win, in other words.

EGM's BioShock coverage encompasses a piece exploring whether it'll encourage other devs to take risks...or simply to clone BioShock instead. It's filled with quotes from Ken and EGM's usual lineup of quotable folks (Randy Pitchford, Cory Barlog, that Wedbush Morgan analyst guy). The cover-story preview is kinda neat, kicking off with Tecmo's NG2 and continuing with pretty much any and every Japanese game a normal person would care about at this point.

Play November 2007

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Cover: Golden Axe: Beast Rider
Average Distribution 2007: Not listed

Only Play (and, okay, Game Informer) would put a brand-new game on the cover of their holiday issue. Play's difference is that they usually get awesome art for said covers. The feature inside is nice and packed with interview stuff (including a sidebar with the producer of the original arcade game), although the game looks a tad early in the screens to be a Q1 2008 release.

This issue is 132 pages, which makes the mag seem enormous thanks to the higher-quality paper stock Play uses. It's pretty well-packed too, with an enormous Tokyo Game Show feature occupying most of the book's second half. (It's interesting how Play's evolved, by the way -- non-game coverage like anime and movies occupies only 4 edit pages this issue, when it was nearly half the mag when it premiered.)

Hardcore Gamer November 2007

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Cover: Uncharted
Average Distribution 2007: Not listed

HCG is a pretty well-oiled machine at this point, and this issue's little different in style and substance from the past twenty. Even this mag, though, gets some BioShock coverage in, publishing an (admittedly late) review of the game.

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine November 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: Army dudes
Average Distribution 2007: 199,901 (197,554 paid)

The thinking man's PC magazine doesn't seem to have gotten much of a boost from holiday ads, but it's nice-looking as always. Ken Levine gets a multi-page interview (I swear, he must've just gone from one office to the next this month), but the top bit this time around is undoubtedly the piece on why The Sims remains to damned popular after all these years.

PC Gamer December and Holiday 2007 (Podcast)

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Covers: Hellgate: London, Crysis
Average Distribution 2007: 216,643 (213,883 paid)

In classic style, PC Gamer rounds out its holiday with two exclusive-review covers. Not a heck of a lot else new to report, however. The Holiday '07 issue is a whopping 164 pages, but 30 of that is a cell-phone advertising section. Ugh.

Game Developer November 2007

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Cover: BioShock
Average Distribution 2007: 45,095 (34,138 'normal' U.S. distribution)

The conference season over, GD goes back to its usual more petite ways. Non-gamers will definitely want to read the BioShock postmortem piece, written by the project lead and covering exhaustively how much the project changed over its development cycle.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]



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