Dec 10

Fable III – Completion Log

WARNING: The following contains spoilers that will ruin Fable III for you.

I became King in Fable III for the Xbox 360 on Nov 1, 2010. This was the day before the midterm elections, and I remember that fact vividly. The first half of Fable III is basically the same as Fable II. You play through a story and eventually become king. The difference here is that once you become King you are tasked with making the same sort of difficult decisions a King would have to make. Err, let me correct that – it’s not quite the same type of decisions, it’s more the weight of the decisions.

But lets go back to that election. Choosing who to vote for was fairly easy, but also on the ballot were several propositions and amendments. These included whether or not to give Property Tax Exemptions to Disabled Former Prisoners of War, changing the rules regarding earning taxes, prohibiting taxing home sales, and changing the laws regarding puppy mills. The way many of these were worded and attempting to consider all of the potential repercussions made it very difficult to just answer yes or no. These laws seemed pretty clear on the surface, but I didn’t know enough about how things are currently structured or how badly Missouri needs money to take a strong stance. I voted against puppy mills because, you know, puppies are cute, but I left almost all of the other boxes blank.

In Fable III, leaving the boxes blank is almost never an option. You’re forced to decide between things like a brothel and an orphanage, deforestation or a sewage treatment plant, and removing all taxes on liquor or outlawing drinking altogether (full disclosure: on that last one I chose the neutral option and just kept the taxes). These seem pretty cut and dry, but the game makes the decisions harder by forcing you to actually pay for your benefits to society. To give those decisions even more weight, on your first day as King you learn that in exactly one year, a plague will come and wipe out any person that you don’t have the resources (money) to protect. How the money protects people is vague, but it’s clear that you need to have $6,500,000 in the bank a year from becoming king if you want to protect your people.

It’s this balance between short-term happiness and long-term health that gives your decisions weight. Do you save everyone’s life by creating a world that isn’t worth living in, or do you create the perfect world for a bunch of goners? That’s what the game’s big question is and it’s effective.

That is, it’s effective until you start reading up on things. You see, soon after I reached the king section I happened upon a Fable III thread where someone complained that Day 120 was the last full day, and after that day you would no longer be allowed to put money toward saving people. I wanted to pretend like I never read it and play the game the same way I otherwise would have, but I couldn’t lie to myself. I still made all of the decisions the way I believed I would have, but I ended up changing the way I played the actual game with that date at the front of my mind. I bought every single house in the game and lingered through side missions and cultivated pointless in-game relationships while my money grew, so that by the time I hit day 120 I had almost exactly the right amount of money.

I finished my last mission, played through the endgame, got the good ending, and felt empty. Part of this was the unfulfilling endgame, but the majority of it was that I had taken this experience which was designed around making your decisions feel less like binary game options and had reduced it almost entirely to binary game options. When the decisions felt like the same type of decisions I was making in the election I was overjoyed. I cared! This is ultimately the greatest achievement of Fable III. There’s a time when you actually care about your subjects. But all of that goes away when you inevitably begin turning those decisions into a game again.

I believe that the reason the game ends on day 120 might be because the designers want you to rule with your gut instead of your head, and they want you to get the ending your heart would have led you to. I wasn’t given this luxury, and Fable III ended on a sour note as a result.

I’ll never know exactly how I would have felt had I not happened upon that forum post, but if you’re reading this, I apologize for ruining the game for you. Now that you’ve read this, it’s probably not worth playing.

Nov 10

Top 10 PS2

The Playstation 2 turned 10 on Oct. 26th and I celebrated by starting a blog post that wouldn’t be completed until November 17th.¬† Oh well, that’s how life goes sometimes. Here are my top 10 favorite PS2 games. As I picked them out I was most surprised by how relatively few of the several hundred PS2 games I own that I’ve actually completed. This isn’t representative of the quality of games on the PS2, only that my tendency in those days was to quickly move from game to game, only playing them long enough to get the gist, or until they began to present a challenge that I didn’t feel like overcoming. I also bought anything that seemed like a good deal, even if I knew I had no desire to ever really invest any time in it. Anyway, these are games I can confidently state that I did invest time in, and felt it was time well spent.

  1. Katamari Damacy
  2. From the moment you see the erupting rainbows and dancing bears and geese singing the glorious theme song you know that Katamari Damacy will be a delightful experience, and it never disappoints. The concept is simple: push both of the analog sticks forward to move a ball forward, rolling into anything smaller than the ball, allowing you to pick it up and grow larger so that you can pick up even bigger objects.

    Convincing yourself that it’s the gameplay of Katamari that matters is tempting, but really it’s the way the simple design keeps your mind churning, searching for the next biggest item (but not too big), while your brain and eyes are bombarded by the happy music and the urge to try to make sense of the ridiculous scenarios the player is disrupting.

    The greatest achievement of Katamari Damacy is how the entire game is structured around building up to a massive last hurrah. In each level you are asked to make your ball larger than the last, climaxing in a final level where you’re given something like 20 minutes to progress from gathering tiny thumbtacks to picking up enormous oil tankers and fluffy clouds. It’s impossible to play without a smile on your face, and that’s why it’s at the top of my list of great PS2 games.

  3. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
  4. My favorite part of Metal Gear Solid 3 takes place about half-way through the game. You’ve infiltrated your way deep inside of the enemy base and you’re making your way back out by climbing a ladder. The ladder climbing goes on for more than two minutes. Shortly after you begin climbing, a woman starts singing the theme song. It’s a 007-esqe spy love song whose chorus is a reference to the game’s “Snake Eater” subtitle (which came first, the title or the song, we’ll never know).

    During this scene your mind is constantly wondering what is going on. The game has just settled into a groove and you’ve just finalized your decision to play the game with stealth or with shotgun-to-the-face aggression. It breaks your groove, and you start to wonder, “am I doing this right? What if I stop moving, would the song go on? Is the game broken?” And when you get to the top you’re instantly thrown back into the action, with helicopters and manned turrets all aimed right at you.

    This scene is amazing for the way it comes out of nowhere forcing you to think, even for a moment, about your role in the game and the game’s role as a game. Not many games are willing to try that, let alone succeed.

  5. Shadow of the Colossus
  6. I first played Shadow of the Colossus at E3 shortly before its release. The E3 demo put you on a horse near the first colossus and gave you no direction. A few people had been walked through defeating the colossus by the Sony reps, but me? I just wanted to try out the controls.

    E3 is an interesting place to play games because you’ve generally got five minutes or less to play a game and take away as much as you can from the experience. With a complex, deeply layered game like Shadow of the Colossus, this is difficult.

    For starters, there’s the controls: The game has the most common moves mapped to simple, easy to understand buttons, but if you want to do anything beyond running and jumping you’ve got to contort your hands into ridiculously complex positions. I spent my 5 minutes learning how to get the horse running, then learning to stand up on the horse and shoot arrows at the colossus. You can’t harm the first colossus with arrows, but that didn’t matter. The joy of putting together all of these moves into this acrobatic feat, and knowing that I did it myself without any instruction made me know that I was playing something special.

    When the final game arrived months later, it took this joy and added a world with a strong sense of versimilitude and a tone that gracefully fades between serenity and brutality. Like Katamari, it’s hard to play the game without a smile on your face, but in this case there’s a certain sadness beneath that smile.

  7. Devil May Cry
  8. I was at Brady Games working on the Final Fantasy X strategy guide when the Devil May Cry demo arrived. I had been following it, but I had imagined a more stylish Onimusha. What I got was the first 3D action game that captured the tight controls and fast action of a fighting game without sacrificing the narrative progression of an action game.

    I’m not sure exactly why, but I don’t believe anybody has been able to successfully capture the feeling or the balance between humor and “coolness” of Devil May Cry since.

  9. Disgaea
  10. Final Fantasy Tactics was a revelation for me. It was like someone took a complex game like chess, made it even more complex, added in the draw of a scripted story, and released it as a videogame. It was so complex that if you tried hard enough and pieced together the game’s systems in the right way you could become all-powerful with little effot, but you’d have to really think it through to do so.

    Disgaea was the next evolution of that. They took the basic mechanics of a tactics game and, sloppiness be damned, added in layers of depth. You could travel virtually anywhere on the board from the very start by picking up other characters and throwing them. You could clear entire boards by solving a puzzle game that lives inside of the colors of the tiles beneath the characters. You could level up characters to insane levels or simply level up their weapons. It’s a lesson in removing the constraints from a game’s design and just letting the systems conflict with each other until something beautiful gets spit out.

  11. God of War
  12. I have a disconnect with others about why God of War is a good game. I was in a conversation last month with a fellow member of the St. Louis Game Developer meetup group about why he likes it. He likes the game primarily for the way it provides so many moves and combos to take out your foes with. I argued that the number of moves doesn’t matter since you can use the same ones to kill anything. No, it’s not the fighting that I like. What I get out of God of War is primarily an appreciation for its storytelling. Although the story itself (a bastardization of Greek mythology) isn’t that great, the way it’s told is a lesson in manipulating a player’s understanding of their environment. A completely linear game, God of War uses the movement and positioning of its camera to guide the player through its environments, subtly guiding the player’s eyes toward whatever the designer intends. There are a few places in the game where you traverse over an environment once, then come back later and barely notice that you’re in the same place because the camera is following you from a different position. These moments are what I love about the game.

    Early on in God of War you run across a grave digger who gives you some quick advice then gets back to work. Later, Kratos is sent to hell and ends up climbing out. When you get to the top you realize that you’ve exited hell through the hole the grave digger was digging. It’s this sort of circular level design that makes a world feel real and makes it feel like your actions are part of a bigger story. This is why I like God of War. For making me think about these things.

  13. Ico
  14. My wife doesn’t like me telling this story, but I tell it all the time. Sorry baby!

    One of our biggest fights ever came early on in our dating relationship when she deleted my Ico save game. She had been watching me play the game, and (despite showing very little interest in games until then) wanted to play it herself. I finished the game the night before and was telling her how amazing the ending was, and when I came back from my classes I found her playing it, only to discover that she deleted my save game. I’m pretty sure I yelled and screamed and tried to make her feel like a moron for not just saving in a different slot or using a different memory card. Clearly it’s strange to feel passionately about something as small as this, but at the time it really bothered me. I think I saw my saved games almost as a body of accomplishments that I was building up over time. The saved games on my memory cards were an invisible body of work that I was creating. This was a time before achievement points, so these cards were all I had to prove my victories.

    I’ve learned now, thanks in part to our fight, that seeing game progress as an actual accomplishment is sort of ridiculous. What matters is how the actual act of playing the game makes you feel, not whether you can put another notch in your belt. If there’s any game that can make you feel, it’s Ico. Our fight isn’t why the game is on this list, that’s why. The way the game creates a relationship between Ico and Yorda using subtle animation hints and cooperative puzzle solving is about as close as anyone’s ever gotten to providing a relationship with an AI that the player actually cares about. Bad box art aside, Ico is a game that everyone should play.

  15. Transformers
  16. Full disclosure: I’m a 32 year old father who still collects Transformer toys. I’ve consciously limited my collection to just the various iterations of Optimus Prime, but now that it’s on the table I can admit that I’m a bit biased when I say that Transformers has a better single player campaign than Halo.

    The comparison is a admittedly a bit of a stretch. Transformers is a third person free-roaming action shooter with platforming elements, while Halo is a fairly strict first person shooter, but the first level invites comparison. It doesn’t look like Cybertron, it looks like you’re on one of the rings of Halo! What Transformers succeeds at is delivering a truly open-ended action game. Almost all of the extremely large, open-air levels are designed with a boss hiding out somewhere waiting to be hunted down. Once you trigger the boss fight you can run anywhere in the level to actually fight it, reinforcing the open-world feeling of the game.

    Once you do a bit of exploring it’s usually pretty obvious where the boss is, but you probably won’t want to stop there. Exploring is where this game excels. Hidden in each level are mini-cons. These are small transformers that give your bot new weapons or special abilities. You can use a limited number of these at any time and can swap them out in between stages. Trying out different abilities and experimenting with different combinations of mini-cons leads to a lot of possible strategies and unique ways of taking on a stage. You’re encouraged to find your own way to play the game, and mine usually involves driving full speed into a decepticon to launch them into the air, and trying to shoot them to death as they fall to the ground – another one of the awesome features of the game.

    Despite being a licensed game, Transformers is an underrated gem that was ahead of its time and still hasn’t had its most unique attributes emulated successfully.

  17. Guitar Hero
  18. My wedding reception was awesome. We had a DJ who didn’t play the chicken dance, a photo booth where everyone could go and get silly pictures taken, and Guitar Hero. Without Guitar Hero we would have never considered having videogames at our wedding reception, but thanks to Harmonix’s key understanding of both music and America, they broke down a wall and made a game that is socially acceptable.

    I can’t put enough emphasis on how American Guitar Hero is. The concept of the guitar music game was pioneered by the Japanese with a game called Guitar Freaks, but Guitar Hero refined that concept in a way that makes it uniquely American. Guitar Freaks’ soundtrack featured a mix of music – some made specifically for the game, some Japanese pop music, and a few licensed American tracks, such as Alanis Morisette’s Ironic. That last one is a perfect example of Japan doing things wrong. When people think of guitar music, Ironic isn’t exactly the first song that comes to mind. In fact, it may be nearly the last. Guitar Freaks attempts to pull in players solely by making a fun game. It succeeds, for the most part, but the song list practically requires that you have an interest in music games before you play it. Guitar Hero went the other route and selected songs people knew and would have been interested in playing outside the context of a game, thus instantly making it more appealing to outsiders.

    Then there’s Guitar Freaks’ guitar itself. It looks the same as the one you use to play Guitar Hero/Rock Band, but it only has three buttons. With three buttons, the feeling of moving your hands up and down a guitar’s neck to create different chords is completely lost. Having only three buttons, Guitar Freaks is forced to place a higher emphasis on rhythm and timing than on finger positioning. It puts the “game” aspect of playing higher than the “experience” aspect, and, ironically, it’s a weaker “game” for doing so.

    With how Activision has been running the brand into the ground, it’s easy to forget what a breakthrough Guitar Hero actually was, but when I look back at the PS2 games that affected my life it’ll always be hard to forget. After all, it’s in my wedding pictures!

  19. Final Fantasy XII
  20. The thing that kept running through my head as I played Final Fantasy XII was how amazing it is that $50 can buy you so much. Final Fantasy XII has tons of depth, looks amazing, has a lot of variety, and has a great sense of pacing. Most impressive is how it fixes the biggest problem present in Japanese Role Playing Games – their insistence on asking you to make non-decisions.

    JRPGs have been broken for a long time. The fun part of playing videogames involves making decisions and learning from the consequences. With that said, think for a moment about how JRPG battles typically play out. You’re presented with an enemy. You attack it and discover that regular attacks don’t do damage. You notice that he’s ice blue, so you attack him with fire. It does critical damage. You’ve now made the connection that ice blue enemies are weak against fire. It was pretty fun! At this point, RPGs trip over themselves by asking you to fight that same enemy over and over again, presenting you with the same decision each time. At this point this option ceases being a decision and starts to be tedious. If you keep playing it’s often not because you’re still having fun, but because you’re too invested in the story to turn back.

    Final Fantasy XII fixes this by taking the making of these decisions and moving it up front to an almost meta level. You make the decision once by programming the secondary characters in your party, and you watch as they perform the actions you tell them, slowly evolving your strategy as more options open up and a greater variety of enemies present themselves. It brings the fun back to decision making, and it allows the design to explore greater complexity elsewhere.

    It’s a very complex game, which lent itself well to the strategy guide that I helped write. I used the money from that guide to buy my wife’s wedding ring, but it’s not on this list for that, it’s here for being such a great game. And sort of like marriage, you get a lot for your money when you stop to think about it.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Final Fantasy X
  • Jak & Daxter
  • SSX3
  • Baldur’s Gate: Dark Aliance
  • Hot Shots Golf 3
  • Makai Kingdom


Nov 10

Professor Layton and the Unwound Future – Completion Log

Finished the most recent Professor Layton game last night. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is the third in a series that I like to describe as “a Sherlock Holmes-like story connecting the types of logic puzzles in e-mails your grandmother would send you.” It’s not a flattering description, but it’s true. Penny Arcade sums it up in a comic about the first game:

Pardon the language.

Anyway, as I played through the game, several random thoughts went through my mind. I thought it might be fun to just list out a few that I can remember and let you come to your own conclusions. So here they are! (very minor spoilers present)

  • This is a story about traveling ten years into London’s future. In the previous games there’s always a big give-away that culminates in grounding the more extreme fantastic elements in the real world. It’s going to be hard for them to ground time travel in the real world.
  • The action in this game reminds me of The Castle of Cagliostro. What a great movie!
  • The production values in this game are really great. Sure, it has talking heads, but it knows what moments to emphasize and really plays them up by adding voice or fully animating the conversations.
  • Level-5 are the best game developers left in Japan.
  • I can’t tell if this game is just easy or if finishing the first two games in the series has prepared me for the type of critical thinking present in the Laytonverse, but I haven’t spent more than a few minutes on any single puzzle yet. I have to admit they’ve all been enjoyable.
  • Why did they decide to animate the scene when you meet the talking bee for the second time?
  • Why did they introduce the talking bee twice only to kill it off and replace it with another (better) character?
  • These animated cutscenes are really great. I don’t really watch anime any more, but I would watch a Professor Layton anime any day. (Note: There is one in Japan, but it hasn’t been released in America yet)
  • There are way too many people to talk to that don’t actually have puzzles for you. I wish there was a way to tell at a glance if someone has a puzzle for you. It seems to run at about 50/50 at the moment.
  • There’s an interesting moment about mid-way through the game where you run into a statue that looks similar to Layton and his apprentice Luke. I didn’t read it as closely as I should have, but the impression that I got was that the story in the Layton games are being framed at a meta-level as the story a father is telling to his son Luke. It never came back up outside of that one moment, but if the games begin to take this metaphor and make it more pronounced it could add some depth to the stories.
  • According to the clock I’ve put 13 hours into this game. It feels more like half that.
  • This (optional) parrot delivery mini-game is way too hard! It’s a great concept though.
  • The (optional) toy car mini-game is really fun. I feel like it could almost be a standalone game.
  • The (optional) storybook mini-game is outstanding, but I wish there was something that indicated where to find the remaining pieces of the book. I can’t find any more puzzles!
  • This might be my favorite Layton game from a gameplay standpoint and it probably has the best pacing. If I have any complaints it’s simply that we’re on a third game in a world populated by people whose sole mode of interaction is harassing you with puzzles (see the comic above). The first game tried to justify it by setting itself in a “curious village”, the second game touched on it a bit but then kind of brushed it off, and this game just assumes that your suspension of disbelief is worn down by now. I guess what I’m saying is I miss the moments in the first game where you really feel the ridiculousness of the Laytonverse, where someone will ask you to figure out the ages of their daughters in exchange for the location of a building you’re trying to find. Now that it’s gone it’s impossible to get that feeling back, but it’s something I really miss about my introduction to the series.
  • Oh, so that’s how they grounded the time travel in the real world. It’s what I expected, and it’s happily even less believable than actual time travel. I’m glad it allowed for a climax of sufficient grandeur.
  • Oh man, I’m so tired. I keep falling asleep during the ending. I’m going to have to finish this again later to catch what I miss. Elliott needs to stop waking up at 6:30AM.
  • How can a trilogy end by introducing more questions?

So ultimately I loved the game, but it’s more of the same. As long as these things continue to keep me interested long enough to add them to my completion log I guess I’m ok with that.

Oct 10

Game Dev Story – Completion Log

Game Dev Story for the iOS (played on an iPhone 4.0) is one of the most addictive games I’ve played in years. This simulation game arms the player with a single secretary and $100,000 and asks them to – over the course of 20 years – build a videogame empire that creates the most successful game of all time. Unfortunately, when viewed as art instead of entertainment, its message conveys the depressing realities of the business end of the videogame industry.

So let’s pretend the game isn’t art and talk about what the game does well. To create a game within Game Dev Story you must decide on a target platform, give your game a theme and a genre, and decide on an employee to take the lead when it comes time to create the scenario, character design, and music. Once your game is complete, you name it something silly, and put some marketing dollars toward increasing both corporate brand recognition. It doesn’t quite mimic what actually goes into real game development, but it does provide a fun, idealized version of it. It also offers a fun, nostalgic look at game history through its semi-realistic release schedule of trademark-friendly misnamed¬† game consoles. I released games on the PC, Senga Exodus, Super IES, Game Kid, Sonny PlayStatus, Intendro DM, and the Intendro Whoops. The detailed pixel-art for everything from the game systems themselves, to the employees and how they catch on fire when they’re working hard is incredibly charming – charming enough to forget that you’re clearly playing a half-assed port of a pre-iPhone, non-touch cell phone game.

What makes Game Dev Story fun is the same thing that makes other simulation games like The Sims and SimCity fun. You’re injecting your own personality and decisions into a simulated world that exists with or without your input and witnessing the outcome. It nurtures our instinctual desire to leave our own mark on the world and try to make the biggest impact we can with our short lives. Using real history enhances this feeling, and it allows your own memories and game knowledge to fuel every decision you make. Why blow $10,000 on a licensing agreement to make games for the Virtual Boy when you know it’s going to be off the market in under a year? Why put all of your points toward cuteness when you’re making a War Simulation game? Why make a Puzzle game about the Stock Exchange when War Simulations are the more obvious sell?

And therein lies the problem.

Because approximated history dictates your game’s sales there is very little room for innovation. Sure, when creating a game you can toss a few points in the innovation column, but a major factor in whether or not your game is successful is whether or not the theme and genre combination has proven successful. Make a Dungeon MMO and you’re in the money, but make a Dating Card Game or a Ninja Puzzle game and you’re shooting yourself in the foot. The natural instinct is to make safe decisions based on what you know sells instead of risking your fortunes on potentially strange combinations. To make matters worse, the game assigns a popularity letter grade to each genre and type, encouraging you to base your games on the more popular ones. Eventually you unlock the ability to make sequels, and creating one of these guarantees even higher sales.

I don’t blame the developers for structuring their game like this. They made the right choice. It’s entertaining and very rewarding, but as a window into human instinct it reveals a dark reality. When your fortunes rest on the success of a game, you’re more likely to structure that game around what you already know works. Why take chances when you can stick with what you know will be successful? Is it any wonder that the Activisions and EAs of the world have stuck with this model, only branching out via misguided PR attempts? When your motivation is strictly money you can’t afford to take chances. As you play the game you find all of your decisions will be based on this. In the beginning you may experiment with a few silly things, but as time goes by the game will mold you into this perfect corporate money grubber, stifling innovation every step of the way, firing any employee who under-performs, and outsourcing whenever you think it will benefit the bottom line. You have fun doing it, but the subtext is killer.

Over the span of 20 years I made 47 games. It’s telling that my only game in that entire period to win the Grand Prize at the Global Game Awards was a Motion Fitness sequel named Pandering DS2 for the Intendro Whoops (its predecessor was on the Intendro DM). I guess art imitates life, right?


Oct 10

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter – Book Review

For my birthday (Sept. 25, mark your calendars) I asked for and received an Amazon Kindle. This was sort of a one-off gift and it’s sort of strange since I haven’t read anything in years and I buy CDs instead of MP3s whenever the option presents itself. But something about the Kindle intrigued me. Maybe it was the hope that the lure of technology would entice me into reading again. I’m not sure, but regardless, the first book I picked up for it was Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. I had heard about it on NPR, and it sounded very much in line with my feelings on games lately.

You see, the title is very misleading. It’s called Why Video Games Matter, but it’s as much about why they do matter as it is about how they’re capable of mattering so much more. It’s hard not to agree. I spend a lot of time with games, but there’s always this background notion, even with the best games, that they could be so much better.

The core of Bissell’s argument is that games need better writers. I’ve had an issue with this statement when I’ve heard it in the past, because when I hear that I imagine a game where the cutscenes and dialogue boxes take center stage to the action. Bissell thankfully makes it clear that more writing does not equate to better writing. What I believe he wants is a game that captures the emotions that the best books and movies give us. As much as we ding games for trying so hard to emulate movies, there persists an intangible, hard to describe feeling that you get from watching movies and reading books that rarely, if ever, is captured by games. Games have no problem making you think about things logically and feel immersed in their worlds, but they haven’t quite figured out how to make us consider the human condition, or even feel empathy for their characters. Action movies have love stories added in simply because the smallest amount of humanity goes a long way toward endearing a work, but games still have only scratched the surface of attempting even something this shallow, let alone more complex emotions.

The book isn’t entirely critical, as a majority of it consists of highlighting games that move the medium in the right direction. Bissell points out that these games are a stepping stone toward where games need to be in the future. According to Bissell, games “began in a place of minus efficacy in all of the above, and anyone who says otherwise has probably never done anything but play games.” This is hard to disagree with, and I like how straightforward it is.

For the most part Bissell successfully straddles the line between celebrating games and damning them. The nature of that mixed message means that the book is missing a concise message. The first three chapters and the ninth and final one are all superb, but the fourth through eighth chapters – those highlighting specific games – feel overly apologetic and a bit insincere. It doesn’t help that the fourth chapter is a copy and paste of this article Bissell wrote for the New Yorker.¬† Still, the excellent half of this book makes it well worth it, and the rest is full of enough worthwhile observations to make them worth reading.

Overall I would recommend this book to anyone who cares about games enough to read a Kindle file about them that has 2820 locations (Kindle text can be any size, so they don’t display page numbers, but Amazon claims it has 240 pages). It’s a brisk read, and even if you don’t agree with everything, it will at least get you thinking. More importantly though, it turns out my instincts with the Kindle were correct. It got me reading!


Oct 10

Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1 – Completion Log

Last night, after 3 short evenings with it, I completed the first episode of Sonic the Hedgehog 4. I’m probably posting this too early because I’m still sort of trying to formulate my opinions on it and pinpoint exactly what went wrong (and right) about the game, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot. On the one hand, I liked it enough to complete it in three sittings, but on the other, the primary emotions I felt while playing were those of disappointment. If I were cynical I would say that I paid $15 to feel disappointed in several different ways! So to help me work out these feelings I’ll write down my complaints in list format.

  1. Sonic 4 feels like it may have started as an HD remake of Sonic 1
  2. This is obvious from the opening moments in Splash Hill Zone (which is an HD version of Green Hill Zone) to the closing moments in Mad Gear Zone (an HD version of Scrap Brain Zone). While Sonic games have always contained levels that are slight variations on previous games in the series, they have never borrowed to this degree before. Yes, the actual level design may be different, but the art feels exactly like what someone who hasn’t played the game in 15 years would remember it looking like. And it doesn’t help that all of the bosses are lifted directly out of previous games in the series.

    Although Street Fighter IV successfully did much the same thing just last year, Sonic is a very different game with very different priorities. While the draw to Street Fighter is in learning the systems, the draw to Sonic is in progressing forward into new locations. No new locations are present here.

  3. The physics are kind of muffed
  4. The main reason Sonic was able to gain ground on Mario in the 16-bit days was the way it felt to move him around. Yes, he was fast, but the challenge and the draw was learning how to control and manage that speed in an environment full of danger. The controls in Sonic 4 are close to what you remember, but now he immediately slows to a halt the moment you let go of the control pad. Honestly, this took me less time to grow accustomed to than I thought it would, but the initial shock of it makes you feel like the designers didn’t know Sonic very well.

  5. Three acts per zone is too much
  6. They start to drag a bit and the third act always feels a bit draining. Every Sonic game after the first one reduced the number of acts to 2 per Zone, probably because they came to this realization. Sonic 4 doesn’t do this, and as a result I found myself reaching for the power switch after every act 2.

  7. When it’s easy it’s ridiculously easy
  8. There’s a level in the Casino Street zone of Sonic 4 where you run past spinning tiles that show up at the bottom of your screen and land on random icons. If you run past a certain number of images that land on coins you get some coins, if you get enough images of Sonic you get an extra life, and images of Dr. Robotnick are worth nothing. If you move quickly enough through the level you can walk away with upwards of 10 or more lives than when you came in. You don’t even have to do any tricks to get these lives, they just sort of randomly come to you. This indicates that maybe there’s something wrong with how easily the game doles out lives.

  9. When it’s hard it feels unfair
  10. This is my primary complaint. There were a few moments where I felt like I was doing everything right but would end up dying regardless. This happened most often in places where platforms and boost pads would appear and disappear on a timer. I’m not sure if the timers were off or something, but I would always try to time my jumps so that I would hit the next platform. Sometimes I would make the jump and sometimes I wouldn’t. On the times when I nailed the jumps I didn’t feel like I was doing anything different, so it felt like their timer logic must have been off or something. This may or may not be the case, but it’s never good to have the player question these things.

  11. Why are all of the stages unlocked from the beginning?
  12. I know there’s a trend for people to complain about having to unlock parts of a game that they’ve already paid for, but with a platformer there’s the subconcious feeling that progressing through the game’s stages tells a story (even when it doesn’t). Unlocking all of the levels immediately from the start only downplays this feeling.

    By the same token, why do you have to push a button during the score tally time to indicate that you want to progress to the next stage? If the player is meant to feel like they’re progressing through a game shouldn’t they have to tell the game that they want to return to the stage select? You’re just given too many chances to quit, and I probably would have finished the game a lot sooner had I not been given all of those chances.

  13. Sonic’s coloring is too light for my tastes
  14. The new HD Sonic sprite is pretty nice looking overall, but they do this weird thing where a faux light source is hitting him, making parts of his body lighter and brighter than the rest. This bright color is just way too light. For some reason it looks off. This is a minor complaint for some, but it really negatively colored (pun intended) my initial impressions of the game, and I never did quite get used to it.

Overall these are mostly minor things, but they add up to an overall feeling of disappointment. There was a lot I liked about the game too, many of which can be summed up using a second numbered list.

  1. The bonus stages
  2. These are quite literally remakes of the game Cameltry. Cameltry is awesome!

  3. The way that nearly every level has its own gimmick
  4. These gimmicks are demonstrated to you early on in each level and they evolve as the levels go on, only actually forcing you to use them at the very end. Every level in the Casino has a different sub-game throughout and every level in the Labyrinth features a different Indiana Jones-like obstacle. It’s good design!

  5. Sonic’s new dash attack
  6. What initially seems like an overpowered gimmick eventually evolves into an integral part of the gameplay. You can now press the jump button in mid-air to cause Sonic to instantly lunge forward. If there’s an enemy nearby you will automatically target them and get the kill. Despite being lifted directly from the 3D Sonic games the implementation in Sonic 4 feels like something that might naturally have been added to the seires if the Saturn had seen its own traditional Sonic sequel. It’s thrilling when the game provides you a series of enemies to fling yourself between in mid-air, and using the dash at times like these brings some of the best moments in the game.

    But like most parts of Sonic 4, I would have liked to have seen it used more often and more effectively. There is a lot of potential for bosses that require you to really master this move, but since all of the bosses are rehashed from prior games, having this additional move only makes their original designs even easier to deal with.

  7. The design encourages and demands constant forward movement
  8. The best part of Sonic 4 is how rarely the game punishes you for aggressively pushing forward. The times you need to go slow are bookended by clearly defined stopping points, encouraging you to go fast whenever you have the opportunity. At times like these the game feels great, and comes very close to capturing the feeling of the older Sonic games.

Sonic 4 has some really great moments, and I don’t want to downplay those, but there is a relentless feeling of disappointment that casts a shadow over the whole thing. I put the disappointments first for a very good reason, and that is that the game never quite rises above them, but being Episode 1 of a potentially lengthy series of games, there’s really only one place to go from here and that’s up. The foundations that this was built on are mostly good, and the brisk level design shows that Sonic Team still has an idea of what they need to do. Now they just need to do it. If the first zone in Episode 2 is another Green Hill Zone though, don’t expect to see another one of these completion logs. After this game I wouldn’t put it past Sonic Team for a second.