Monday, 27 April 2015

Sexy Fun With The Socks Make People Sexy Sockscast!

Before I started this blog space, I wrote plenty of words for a site called Socks Make People Sexy. During its heyday of regular guest-contributated content, I submitted god knows how many amateur wafflings about old video games and whatnot. For those who haven't seen those raw writings of mine, here you go. Not counting the multiple things I've written on their forums, some of which I've cross-posted over here. Others I haven't! That's not important right now. What is important is Socks Make People Sexy, curated by a lovely lady named Polly. She's run the site out of pocket for ten years now, and recently she began a biweekly podcast where her and two other regular SMPS members talk about video games they've played and other fun things they've partaken in! Sometimes they have guests on the "hamper seat", so to speak... and I got my chance to do so around two months ago. Sockscast Episode 14, with 3 hours or so of me with Polly and pals talkin' up video games.  It was an incredible time, to say the least.

Just last night, to celebrate 10 years of SMPS, Polly and friends hosted a live version of the Sockscast! 7 hours straight of podcasting, swapping in various guests for a half hour or so each to talk up whatever they liked and join in on the festivities. You can find the massive 7 hour audio files right over here.  I show up at around the 90 minute mark or so in part 1, and talk about my own history with the site while getting somewhat praised for writing esoteric Nintendo god mythology over here. Point is, the SMPS was an important turning point for me writing words on the Internet, and I cannot thank Polly enough for her grace in... gracing her own blogspace with my unfettered and unpolished words about how Mega Man 6 isn't all that good.

Here's to 10 more years of Sockscast, and here's to the Pitchfork that's prodded me about this blog that's really made me want to get back to writing for it.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Super Nintendo Project

If you look up top at the header, you'll see the name Phil Sandifer. Phil is the very nice and smart man who started this Nintendo Project. He then put it on the back burner in favor of writing about Doctor Who, and then a magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, but also a lot of Game of Thrones or something? Hey, I can't harsh him for putting Nintendo game blogging on the back seat. I'm guilty of the same. Anyway, thanks to his Patreon, he's started something new which I feel obligated to link on this space since it's related to the mission statement of this place; The Super Nintendo Project.

His first entry is, of course, on Super Mario World. Rather than go through alphabetically, he's taking an approach that has snapshots of the history of the console and landmark games. This is smart because then he doesn't have to talk about 45 baseball and golf games. What's also notable is that, on social media and whatnot, he repeatedly describes the Super Nintendo Project as "a magical ritual to destroy Gamergate". Which, you know, I'm really curious to see how that pans out. In fact, I'm throwing whatever arcane power this cultivated blog space has into that bit of alchemical nonsense. Mr. Sandifer, you may consider the full power of Valya, Peko The Destructor, the Dread Beast GREED, Pure Platforming, and any other magical property I brought into being during my time on this blog to be part of your ritual. Use their power wisely, and boost the energies of your own liminal space.

For the rest of you, you can read the first post of the Super Nintendo Project right here. I do have a thing planned to write that is not about Nintendo games, but we'll see whenever I get around to it. Enjoy the ritual, and please begin your social justice paganist chanting now. 

Monday, 13 April 2015

Obscure Alchemy For Queen And Country (Rock Boshers DX: Director's Cut)

(It's the full disclosure fairy, again! The computer game I am about to write about was given to me by the #GamesMatter Twitter account. I got a game, and in exchange I get to write about how I liked it and whatnot. Really, I would have written about this game anyway. Because I had a thing or two to say, as you'll see. Let's get into it!)

You know something? NES nostalgia pieces may have run their course. It's odd of me to say that, considering the fact that this is the bloody Nintendo Project Resumed, but one gets tired of the same old same old. That being said, amazing things have been done with NES nostalgia. Amazing things, but also dark forces. I said as much when I talked about Shovel Knight way back when, but loving tributes to old video games are a sort of alchemy. You can get a perfect Philosopher's Stone like Shovel Knight, which expands and improves upon the formulae perfected over the life of a little grey toaster box... or the putrefaction that was the Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures. That one's a shambling homunculus, a Hyde prone to violent outbursts... and yet it gets away with it. SO REWARDING AND SO NINTENDO HARD, JUST LIKE THE GOOD OLD DAYS. Absolutely not, but this is not our intent. Our intent is to zoom the lens out, and ponder something. Why have we let the Nintendo  alchemists overwhelm this field of electronic equivalent exchange? Where are the Genesis madmen with their volatile blast processing vials? The patrons of the Master System and Game Gear, the little system that could? Show me some love for your Wonderswans, your Neo Geo Pockets, your Commodore 64s. Off the top of my head, there are two of these unconventional alchemical love letters to the obscure systems. The first is La-Mulana, a wildly successful homage to the MSX days in its original form. The re-release I have just replaces all the MSX tapes with laptop programs. Something has been lost. The second is what I finished playing a few days ago; Rock Boshers DX, from an alchemy outfit called Tikipod. Their goal? Bring back the ZX Spectrum.

In the 1980s, Japan was a hazy island that the video gaming children knew little about. In 1983 it produced a red and black box that became a grey box when it came to North America and took us all by storm. We know this song well. Over on another hazy island, one called the United Kingdom... a different sort of beast emerged. The ZX Spectrum, a decidedly low-tech but affordable computer machine. Seven colors, the minimum of graphics and sound, but with a "do-it-yourself" mentality that took the island by storm. One need only witness a program like Manic Miner to see the oddity of the Spectrum. The shrill and harsh digitized classical music, the simplistic platforming, the unforgiving nature... hell, England ate it up. I don't know why, seeing as I was not around for this, but it was a scene. The ZX Spectrum was popular, and it grew its following. Rareware, the fellows who would entertain my childhood and frustrate my adulthood, got their start on this thing. The Spectrum happened, and 30 years later Tikipod here have capitalized on it. Their alchemy, much like Shovel Knight's, takes the base and expands on it. At over 100 megabytes, it easily dwarfs an average Spectrum game. The point is that they did their best to remain faithful. It looks and sounds like a Spectrum game, even if I was playing it on a handheld that would have blown my mind 15 years ago, let alone 30. They take the formulae, and work with every trick in their playbook to make a fantastic evolution; the next new Spectrum game. Then they go further, and make things oddly fitting. It all begins with a faux Spectrum loading screen, but once that's done the real magic begins. The true power emerges, and here we are. It is 2015 and 1983 at once, and we are playing Rock Boshers DX.

At its core, Rock Boshers DX is a twin stick shooter. One moves with an analog stick, and fires in another. This created a problem, I must admit, on my Vita. The itty bitty analog sticks meant that shooting right or diagonally right was difficult. In the heat of the moment, this caused misfires and frustrations. Were I playing on PC, I get the feeling that this would be less of an issue... but I cast my lot with the Vita, and this is what I got. Let us focus more on what Rock Boshers is. It is a double 80's nostalgia piece. There is the obvious nostalgia for the 1980s and the Spectrum, but the game's setting is no less than the 1880s. You play as Queen Victoria, on a steampunk adventure to Mars to blast at turrets, tanks, and zombies in order to stop a man in a top hat from taking over the British Empire with his absolute power. So, we're at the very heart of alchemy itself, then. The iconography of the Victorian era, with its playable character as the namesake of that era, no less! These are the stakes we play for, and we play a difficult but mostly fair game. The action is fast-paced but also dangerous. Death can come quickly, and often. Still, one learns how to work. Shoot and move. Run in laps. Bait out homing missiles and equip new weapons to survive. Oh, and don't forget to take a break for tea and scones. They'll unlock things.

Of course, in the end, we cannot escape the gravity of those NES alchemists. I just learned about this. The Steam version has an option to play it in 8-bit console style mode. The NES formulas snuck into the brew somewhere down the line. Not on the Vita, as far as I can tell... and to be honest, I prefer it that way. We've had enough NES nostalgia, as I've said. There are steps in the alternate directions, beyond Rock Boshers DX. La-Mulana in its original form invokes the MSX. Games like John Thyer's Fugitive pull forth power from the original Game Boy. Daniel Linssen's Roguelight is a shade of red away from being a Game Boy game played on the Game Boy Color, in default palette. This is good, but I wish to see more. Invoke the Master System and Game Gear. Invoke the Neo Geo Pocket, the Wonderswan, the Commodore. Invoke everything obscure and unique that you can. Rock Boshers DX can be the first step to a larger world of reimagining nostalgia, if we allow it to be. We can observe the history of these consoles, find what made their core games tick, and then advance them for the modern age. It's 2015 and we have that power... so why not do it? Queen Victoria can. Why don't we?

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Metroid Other M: I'm Authorizing Use Of The Gameplay Beam

(I'm sorry, kind of. Also this is your spoiler warning. There are spoilers for this video game. You hath been warned.)

I'm going to do it. I'm going to talk about Metroid: Other M. Not in the way you might expect, though. I have no titanic wall of words to take down every single facet of what I think the game did wrong. Someone's done that for me. I don't need to look at the story of the game and mock it without relent. Someone's done that for me, too. It's been almost five years. The thing's been torn apart in analysis, re-assembled, and then shredded again. There's almost nothing new to add, except this here post which is a preamble to a point I wanted to make. A point that I discovered only last week and now feel terribly clever about, enough so to bother writing about this video game that I played four and a half goddamned years ago and won't shut up about to my friends online. It's not my fault this time, someone else brought it up and told me about a video this other guy did. This dude called Moviebob defended the game, kind of. In two videos. One here and then a rebuttal here. I watched them because even though I keep harping on this game for all it did wrong, it's good to look at the other side of critical analysis sometimes. I don't think this fellow made a very good defense of Other M, though. He made a case for one or two points, but the problem with Other M is that it's flawed on just about every level. You can't just rebuke the claims about Samus Aran having no characterization and then go "okay I'm done, game's good, stop hating". There is so much more wrong with it, and those other things I linked delve very well into them. This? This is just a preamble to one of my bullshit mythical ideology clashes I write so much about.

All you folks out there who like Other M, who thought it was fine, who have to deal with their darling being hated on every day by assholes like me? I understand, okay? In the first place, I'm a critical booster of Zelda 2, a Nintendo game which gets its fair share of hate for being too different. Other M changes things up a lot from something like Super Metroid, and it can be seen as too different too. I think the best way to illustrate the clashing ideologies thesis this entire writeup is about is to just come out and say it; I liked Other M. I was having a general good time with it, up to a certain point. Then it just lost me, and then I read the critical analyses against it and the game really lost me. As I was playing it, I fell back on the usual defense for the game. The story, I felt, was a total miss in its presentation. You know all the usual beats. Monotone Samus. THE BABY. The blandness of Adam's squad, minus Anthony. I was ignoring that, for the most part, because of the usual defense. Hey, that gameplay sure is neat! Flippin' around, blastin' monsters, jumpin' on their heads and SHOOTIN' EM IN THE HEAD YEAH YEAH HOW COOL IS THAT? There were a few niggling issues, of course. The weird pointy thing you had to do for missiles. Those godawful "highlight the pixel" segments. It wasn't perfect, but it was kind of fun. If the game stayed on that level, I could have been fine with it.

The moment Other M's story actually got a positive reaction out of me came when the Deleter (yes, I'm groaning too) tried to kill Samus with a forklift. Ignoring the clunky name for a second... holy shit. I was stoked. Something interesting was happening. We had a traitor on board the Bottle Ship, and he was actively out for our blood! He was bumping off the bland squaddies too, but still! I was excited, do you understand? This was new and cool and I wanted to know who it was and have this amazing confrontation. The game let me down here, and it let me down in a way I almost didn't even realize until it was over. James Pierce, the Deleter, sent by the Galactic Federation to clean up the mess on the Bottle Ship fuss-free. This plot point I was so psyched up about, and the fucker dies offscreen. As it turns out, this became a trend in the endgame of Other M, and it's the point I want to make. Other M is a game about two clashing ideologies; Gameplay and Narrative. The reason why it fell flat for me, personally? Instead of the two complimenting each other, the endgame of Other M sees Narrative brutally beating the everloving shit out of Gameplay, and winning out at Gameplay's expense. In the name of Narrative, several parts of Gameplay are actively taken away from you, and in my opinion they sour the whole thing. Really, we should have seen it coming. The game already proved that Gameplay and Narrative don't play friendly in this world, and that was all thanks to the authorization mechanic.

Okay, look, it's been harped on so goddamned much already that I'm beating a dead horse when I criticize it at this point, but I'll say this; the authorization mechanic almost works. I get it. You want a reason for Samus to not start with all her cool toys, and earn them via progression as you go along. You come up with this in-universe thing where she willingly puts herself under Adam's command, and he advises her on when to use her weaponry. Hell, you even covered yourselves by adding in a line about how you shouldn't be firing off Power Bombs willy-nilly because there might be survivors and you could fucking atomize them, OKAY! That's good, that's justification. I can buy that, I really can. The problem is that you then restricted all of the movement and defense-based powers of Samus's Power Suit, but without coming up with any narrative explanation. Narrative just decks Gameplay in the face, takes away the Varia Suit and the Space Jump and who knows what else, and holds it over Gameplay's head. The main sticking point for many was that bit where Samus ran through the damaging fire area, burning alive until Adam was like "hey yo turn on that Varia Suit". That Moviebob fellow states that there's no difference between this sequence of events, and something like Super Metroid where you run through the burny area until you just find the magic heat-resistant suit. Bullshit! The difference is narrative! This is a game about narrative, and Samus just sort of runs in there for no explained reason! You could pull any justification out of your ass for this. The suit's malfunctioning because of the end of Super Metroid. The Deleter fucked with temperature control and you have to go in there and risk your life to turn it back before the station boils. I came up with those in two seconds, and Yoshio Sakamoto was making money off of this. There could have been a narrative reason that played nice with the gameplay. Instead it just happens, gameplay be damned.

That's nothing compared to the brutal assault the Narrative makes near the end of the game. It took away movement abilities for the sake of fiddling with the Gameplay. Now it just straight up takes away the Gameplay's potential. Any and every possible exciting climactic gameplay moment that Other M could have had in its third act is taken away from the player to serve the narrative. Let's start with Ridley. I'm not going to talk about the bit where Samus has a panic attack over seeing him again. After Anthony bites it, she gets to fight Ridley in a cool battle. She does not defeat him here, though. He flies off deeper into the space station. Keep that in mind. We already mentioned the Deleter, and how the exciting confrontation with him is removed by him dying offscreen to MB. The same thing happens to Ridley. He dies offscreen to the Metroid Queen. You are actively denied any revenge against him for killing Anthony, because the narrative takes him away from you before that can happen. There is no catharsis. How about Sector Zero? An entire section of gameplay, a part of the space station brimming with Metroids, possibly reminiscent of Tourian? The narrative strikes back in the cruelest way possible. Adam Malkovich, the poster boy for this game's story, literally shoots Samus Aran, the player avatar, in the back. Then, still in the narrative form of cutscene, he sacrifices himself. In doing so, the narrative takes away the climactic final area of the game from you. Samus, still stuck in her cutscene form, can do nothing but cry and thank Adam for this. The narrative fucking hates you, man. Next comes the Metroid Queen, and in a stroke of luck you actually get to fight the godforsaken thing. Even though it comes out of nowhere. What should be a cool fight gets all sorts of fucked up near the end, when you have to do the old Metroid 2 trick of morph balling into its mouth. Then you use a Power Bomb. You know. Those things that you haven't been allowed to use for the entire game, thanks to narrative. Those things that the narrative doesn't even tell you TO use, so you just die six times until you figure it out. Jesus Christ. After all of that, then is the confrontation with MB. You only get to point at her. The final enemy of the game is in your sights, you have her targeted, you're ready to fire, and WHAM! Narrative double-decker dropkicks you in the face and lets the cutscene take over! Game over, haha, thanks for the 50 bucks now go WATCH THE THEATER MODE YOU CLOD.

I have a hard time thinking of any other game where the plot actively hates you playing it this much. That's what it feels like. They developed the plot first, then fit the game around it as an afterthought. So much of what could have been an exciting game is just stolen from you by the narrative, for the sake of drama and monotone voice acting that most people don't give two shits about because they bought this game to shoot monsters. Here's something for all y'all to mull over; would Other M have been better if they developed it as a CG movie, like Advent Children or Resident Evil Degeneration? If they just used the time they would have spent coding a game on making more cutscenes to bridge the gaps between the ones we already have? Would there really be a difference? You wouldn't be able to play it, sure, but I've made the case that Sakamoto doesn't want you to play this. If he did, he wouldn't have compromised so much of the bloody gameplay in the name of story. This is why Other M flopped for me. It took a game that was kind of fun but had a dumb story, and then totally doubled down on that dumb story to the detriment of the game part. Which, you know, is why people plopped down their money for Other M in the first place. They wanted a game, a game that played hand in hand with narrative. Not something that goes and kicks the game part in the balls out of sheer spite.

Alright. I think I'm done harping on Other M. That is, until that goddamned madman makes good on his threat and gives me his copy in July. The very copy he lent me, the very copy I played to form these opinions. The Silver Nemesis returns, I suppose. For now, until some other nonsense comes along, I think I got out all my dirty laundry about Other M. If you liked it, I almost understand.