Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Last of Us (PlayStation 3) Review

Even though I don't write these reviews very formally, you still need some sort of a thesis to start things off. A lot has been said about this game and I'm not entirely sure where to start. I'll start at the very beginning. There's going to be a couple of spoilers, but I'll keep the big stuff out of it.

From the moment you put the game into your PlayStation 3, it's made apparently that this is a game of a serious nature. The background on the XMB is a dramatic black and white rendering of our main characters, Joel and Ellie. Once you load up the game, you're greeted with what is instantly recognizable as Gustavo Santaolalla's unique composition. He's an excellent composer, with his soundtrack to The Motorcycle Diaries being one of my favorite movie scores.

This struck me as a bit odd. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries dozens of times (usually sandwiched between readings on Che Guevara) in my teens. His score is perfectly suited for the movie, but it seemed odd here. A zombie cordyceps fungus monster game is something fundamentally American. Santaolalla's music has a distinctly South American edge to it. My initial thought was that this would end up in a sort of mismatch between environment and music, but it was actually quite the opposite. It fits; in the same way the score emphasized Che's early years and spirit to go out and do something, the music here emphasizes the same sense of scale and adventure.

It's fitting that they sprang for Santaolalla to do the score, as the story has the same weight as his music does. The writing here is a thing to behold; the characterization is the best of any game I've ever played. There's a myriad of games with powerful stories and excellent performances from voice actors (Robert Carlyle as Gabriel Belmont in the end of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow comes to mind), but we've never had such well rounded characters. Joel and Ellie are believable and real. We're not just treated to their personalities in cutscenes, they have banter while just walking around. Ellie spazzes out and acts weird like a kid would. You come to care for both of them and understand their actions.

Strong characterization drives home moments in a story. You could have the most dramatic moment imaginable, but if your characters are as paper thin as those in an SNL sketch, the moment will fall flat. The confidence in the characters is immediate and I think that this game has probably the finest opening moments of any game. Our zombies infected are here due to a mutated strain of a real life parasitic fungus that takes over ants and kills them, then uses their bodies to spread the fungus to other ants. This is a pretty clever idea, but really it's just another way to say zombie without being so cliche (I'll accept it because I'm so fucking tired of zombies everywhere). 

The introductory sequence is set in 2013 with Joel and his daughter just as the fungus is beginning to spread. They make an attempt to escape the town that they live in as all hell is breaking lose. They've almost made it to the road, when a soldier orders them to stop and shoots Joel's daughter dead. Bring up the Santaolalla soundtrack, smash cut to the title card and all of your feels are on fire.

We pick up 20 years later with Joel a (predictably) broken and changed man, working with a woman named Tess (voiced excellently by Annie Wersching, aka the reason Jack Bauer went full Bauer). They're into some shady thug shit, and are expecting a large shipment of guns. It turns out they were stolen and traded to a group called the Fireflies, who work in opposition to the government in trying to bring order back to society. Jeol and Tess are told that they can get the guns back if they take Ellie, a girl infected with the fungus but not changing, to a Firefly lab to be studied for a possible cure. Society has collapsed at this point in time, with survivors mostly packed into tightly controlled quarantine zones in major cities. Tess doesn't make the escape from the quarantine zone (Surprised? There's only two people on the cover, this isn't really a spoiler..), leaving Joel alone in taking Ellie to the Fireflies.

Joel resents this at first and sees it as a job, but eventually comes to care for Ellie. Their journey takes them across the country over the course of about a year, as they are always just slightly too late to meet up with the Fireflies. I won't spoil the ending, but it does bring up an interesting morality question which I may write about separately at another time. This was the talk of the internet when the game came out, and I managed to avoid spoilers. You probably should, too. The idea presented isn't necessarily unique, but the way the game forces you to consider it in the ending is.

I have nothing but praise for the story and soundtrack, but let's actually dig in to the gameplay. That's why we're really here, right? 


I'm going to be straight up. There's very little that's actually enjoyable about playing this game. You're either fucked or you're taking a casual walk to the next place that you'll be fucked. Supplies are limited in this game since we're 20 years into such a catastrophe. You don't have a lot of ammo, and you've got to scrounge supplies to put together makeshift grenades and weapons. There is still a healthy amount of ammo around, but the gun mechanics are just plain bad. Take a look at this screenshot from multiplayer (because I couldn't find any screenshots that actually showed the reticule on screen except this one):

The camera zooms into your character so tight and at such an odd angle that the reticule seems to have no actual relation to the position of your character and the gun. About midway through the game you begin to compensate for this and focus solely on the reticule, but then they pull the rug out from under you and the enemies all get armor and are almost impossible to kill. That midway point when you get comfortable with it? The game is fun to play at that point. 

This is largely set up as a stealth game, but it's infuriating beyond belief. I'm a big fan of stealth games, but The Last of Us doesn't really look at what other games have done in the genre. Take Splinter Cell, a game from 2002. If there is a light that's causing you difficulty in moving through an area you can A) shoot it or B) find the switch and shut it off. The Last of Us does no such thing. 

The shaky gunplay is basically a death sentence for you in almost every situation. There are enemies called clickers which typically take multiple hits to kill and if they get to you, you are IMMEDIATELY dead. You CAN level up a skill so that you have the ability to stab them, but it is one of the costliest skill upgrades in the game. It's not easy to upgrade your skills either; you have to collect pills that are hidden around levels. There are several other essential skills to upgrade, and by the time I got those to an acceptable level and went to get the stabbing skill, I didn't even end up using it because those enemies were hardly around anymore.

When you encounter enemies, you're usually greatly outnumbered. The game wants you to sneak around and stealthily deal with them one by one. This is... a lot to ask, and I'm patient with games. One misstep and you're fucked. The enemies have a pretty uncanny ability to shoot you consecutively until you die. You can sneak by enemies too, but there are times when the game has given you impossible odds and virtually forces you to fight by placing enemies in spots that you can't really draw them away from without exposing yourself. You will die a lot, it will be immediate, and it will be frustrating. To its credit the game does checkpoint frequently, but it still doesn't offset the frustration. 

The Last of Us is a movie of unusual power. But the bits of game inbetween? Those bits are deeply flawed on a fundamental level.

I believe that games have to be scored as a sum of their parts. I don't think one part can override others. Case in point, Mass Effect 3. Most people loved the gameplay. The story was a disaster, which had always been touted as a key point of the Mass Effect series. Yet, we had a game that was highly controversial because of all of the 9.0 reviews with the little "well, the story sucks" caveat.

In that spirit...

The Score: 7.5/10

This is an above average game with a lot of effort put into it, but it's just not fun to play. If I were to disregard the gameplay and reward it on its story merits alone, it would be a solid 9.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (Game Boy Advance) Review

In my opinion, the Legend of Zelda is a series of ups and downs (usually within the same game). The Wind Waker era was a huge down, and I never really had much interest in The Minish Cap. However, who can resist when you find the game at Goodwill right after you install a backlit screen (I'll write about that some day) in your original Game Boy Advance? I'll gladly pay $3 for that.

My main disappointment in the series stems from the over-reliance on gimmicks. This seems to be a recurring theme in recent Nintendo games. For Zelda, we've had transformative masks, a sailboat, the Four Sword, the titular Minish Cap, the wolf transformation in Twilight Princess, a boat again combined with an all out touchscreen assault... and whatever obstructs you in Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks (I haven't played those two, but I did recently buy Skyward Sword). I'll say that I love Majora's Mask though, as the masks didn't really fundamentally change the game or hamper it. I said in my God of War review that there's something to be said for perfecting the wheel instead of reinventing it and this is something that Nintendo has no grasp on.

I mean, really, how good would it be to just get a straightforward Zelda adventure through Hyrule again? No fucking around, just doing what you need to do to kill Ganon.

Thankfully, Capcom developed The Minish Cap. Capcom knows not to fuck with a good thing too much. Well, not really. They knew for about 7 years before they started up with Street Fighter again.

Fuck you guys.

The gimmick of the hour for Minish Cap is the ability to shrink down in size. Thankfully, this gimmick is limited to puzzle solving and exploration. It is used in some boss battles, but it works out surprisingly well. The artwork for the areas you can only access when you're shrunk down is really quite stunning, too.

It's good enough that it makes the rest of the areas almost disappointing. It's the same 2D Zelda you've always known, with a brighter coat of paint. The art style is similar to The Wind Waker, which is probably the best thing they could've taken from that game.

Minish Cap is the second game in the series chronology, following Skyward Sword. It explores the origin of the Four Sword, which approximately no one gave a fuck about since no one had four friends and four GBAs and four copies of the GBA version of A Link to the Past to actually play Four Swords. There's no Ganon here, instead your enemy is the wizard Vaati, who promptly turns Zelda to stone. Shit goes down and Link gets paired up with Ezlo, a bird-like thing who is actually your hat. He allows Link to shrink down to be the same size as the Minish, a race of microscopic beings that live in Hyrule. They help Link to take his sword and infuse it with four elements, making it the Four Sword. 

Unfortunately, the quest is neither lengthy or difficult. There are more than four dungeons, but they're all short and there's really nothing challenging about them. It takes about 6 or so hours to finish the game. The game lacks the expansiveness to fuel the feeling that you're really on some grand adventure. It has nothing to do with the fact that it's 2D, either. Hell, the original Zelda on NES feels like it plays out on a grander scale.

There are attempts to make the game longer but they don't offer enough to bring you back into it. You'll collect things called Kinstones from chests and cutting down grass, which you combine with an NPC's Kinstone (there are also slots on walls for them in some places) for some kind of a reward somewhere on the map. Initially, hunting down Kinstones and matching them up is a fun distraction but it eventually reveals itself as shallow busywork. The vast majority of the rewards are simply not worth the effort of finding the person who has a Kinstone to match and then traveling to the location of the item. The other piece of busywork is collecting shells and trading them for figurines. This really isn't anything complicated, but getting the figurines is what's tedious.

You go to a store to exchange the shells. You walk to the right and pick how many shells you want to give for your random figure. There's an animation for this. Then the figurine appears across the store. There's an animation for this. Then you walk over and pick up the figure. There's an animation for this. Christ almighty, what a waste of fucking time. Again, it's just fucking busywork and it's not worth collecting them all.

As far as the gameplay goes, it's your traditional 2D Zelda. The usual weapons appear, the usual enemies appear. Like all Zelda games, there'll be a new item that the game will have an over-reliance on. Our culprit here is the Wind Jar. It either sucks things up, or blows gusts of air. Predictably, this plays into a lot of puzzles. Infuriatingly, it becomes necessary for moving around certain environments. You'll be given a leaf on the water, and you've got to use the gust jar to blow yourself (ha) around, like a sail boat without a sail. It's.. tedious (there's a pattern here). The other thing of note here is the Four Sword. As you add elements, you'll be able to make copies of Link (so if you have two of the four elements, you have two Links). You'll need your copies to push blocks or defeat some bosses. There's a few bosses that require you to do this to beat them, and it is infuriating. You have to charge your sword fully in order to spawn your copies, and then stand on specific tiles. If you get hit, your sword stops charging. If one of your copies gets hit, they all disappear. You can figure out how that goes if you put it in the context of a boss.

I've done a good job of pointing out the bad, but there's a considerable amount of good as well. The music is truly excellent, and it's a bit shocking at what the GBA can do with sound. While the dungeons are short, the level design is excellent. It's always clear what you need to do, which is important for a 2D game. 

I really had a whole lot of fun with the game. Most of the things I pointed out as negatives are things that you can (for the most part) ignore. The price is really the barrier to entry here. I couldn't recommend this as a $30 game, which is the typical asking price for a legitimate copy on eBay. There's a lot of fake cartridges out there for this game, but if you've got a keen eye then this may drive down the price of legitimate copies. If you can have it for less than that or if you don't mind a pirated cart, then I'd say it's worth it. It's good, but there's just not a lot of game here.

The Score: 8/10

Sunday, January 18, 2015

PlayStation 2 Refurb and HDD Mod


The early models of the original PlayStation 2 are... difficult. That's my PlayStation 2. It was "refurbished." Which is why it ended up in Goodwill with disc read errors. Last January when I first started this blog, I had bought a slim PlayStation 2. I ended up hating it and buying a fat shortly after. Since the slim PlayStation 2 has a flip top lid instead of a DVD drive with a tray, it has some problems. Hoping to prevent the disc swap piracy circumvention of the PSX (and even the PS2), Sony put two lid sensors in the slim. One sits in the front corner of the disc area and one in the back. This wouldn't be a real problem, except for the fact that the rear lid sensor doesn't stay depressed very well. I was putting a book on top of it to keep it from thinking that the lid opened, and even then it didn't always help.

On top of this, the PS2 slim has compatibility issues with some games. The original PS2's processor was 294mhz, with the slim coming in at 300mhz. This breaks a few PS2 games and the slim has more compatibility issues with original PlayStation games, you can see these games here. Really, the fat PS2 is anything but a downgrade.. not to mention out of the box HDD support (some PS2 slims support the HDD with modding).

HDD support is one of the lesser known features of the PS2. It was pretty well supported in Japan, with games featuring installs and caching to speed up loading. In the US, it was pretty much only used for Final Fantasy XI. There are US games which take advantage of the drive, but it's nowhere near what it was in Japan. We'll get into that later.

The PS2 is not a difficult console to work with, but it is finnicky. I think about older consoles like this somewhat like classic cars. You either can't be afraid to get your hands dirty, or you need to find a good mechanic who won't charge too much and will be honest with you. First, let's address one of the most blatant and annoying problems.

Not all PS2 games come on DVDs. Some come on CDs, particularly the earlier games. CDs come on blue backed discs and DVDs are silver/gold. I think everyone has a copy of Tekken Tag Tournament, and I think everyone has probably also noticed that playing the game results in a pretty horrible squealing noise coming from the PS2. I googled this and it apparently has to do with the fact that CDs read at 12x and DVDs read at 6x (those speeds may not be accurate, but CD is faster and that's what's important). The higher rate of speed causes the magnetic part.. thing of the drive to slip. There's a pretty ghetto solution going around:

Put tape on the top of the disc to give the the top part a better grip. Yeah.. I don't want to tape up all of my CD based games. If you look closely at that picture, you can see near the center of the disc that some of the printing has rubbed off where the spindle contacts the disc and it's even more apparent on my copy of Tekken Tag Tournament. This needs to be fixed if it's actually damaging the disc. Instead of putting the tape on the disc, I decided to put the tape on the top part.

Some simple painters' tape fixed the problem right up, and now I don't have to tape all of my discs like some kind of psychotic. I don't have to hear a banshee squealing anymore, either.

The next problem is the laser. Early models of the PlayStation 2 used the KHS-400B laser. This is the laser that lead to all of those infamous disc read errors. The first 3 revisions of the PS2 use the KHS-400B. The 400B was later retired in favor of the KHS-400C, a much more reliable piece of hardware. The 400C can go into most consoles with the 400B, but there are issues with the length of the flex cable which puts stress on it, causing a worse problem. Luckly, I have the 4th revision. It had a 400B in it, but the 400C goes in without problem.

I had originally replaced the laser with another 400B. It worked, but it had issues. CD based games started quickly, but DVD based games took a while to boot. In addition, there could be some hiccups with loading things fast enough. I got tired of it and decided to pop in a 400C. The 400C works much better. DVD and CD based games load in a similar time and there's no issue with loading assets quickly enough in game.

Don't forget to remove the antistatic solder.

The fat PS2's teardown is a bit more involved than the slim, but there's plenty of guides out there. Replacing lasers is pretty much the same for every console, though. Get in there, unplug the old one, drop the new one in. We've now addressed two of the most critical problems with the original PS2. Now, let's improve.

Here's the back of the PS2 network adapter. These are common as hell and cheap, too. The official PS2 HDD kit had a 40gb HDD paired with... just this network adapter. Well, the good news is that we don't need the official Sony kit. Those are standard connectors that any IDE HDD will have. There is a company that sells a SATA upgrade as well, which you basically just plug right into the existing network adapter. Their website is a little sketchy, though.

If you're into modding and whatnot, then you've surely heard of FMCB for the PS2. It exploits a memory card function to load custom code. I don't have anything against FMCB... but there's a better way. That's the HDD OSD mod and it is really easy. I actually used that guide myself. For actually playing games, there's a few different options. OPL is the best option, but I don't really like it aesthetically. Thankfully, there's HDLGame Installer. If you've never used a PS2, the memory card screen has these nifty little 3D icons for each game that are usually characters in the game animated somehow. The PS2 HDD uses this same interface, and it lets you install games to the HDD and launch them from the PS2 browser and associates the little icon with the game as well. Neat.

There's actually a lot of cool stuff you can do with the HDD mod. My favorite thing is probably the ability to back up memory card save files to the HDD (this works for PS2 and PS1 saves). For getting games on the HDD, WinHIIP is probably your best option even though it's a bit old. There's also a PlayStation emulator called POPStarter that you can use to load PS1 games on the HDD. HDD installation doesn't work with all PS2 games, but the compatibility is high. POPStarter doesn't work with all PS1 games either, but that's to be expected since it's an emulator. The HDD mod here is probably not for the faint of heart though, as it's not easy to work with in some regards. It's definitely more involved than an Xbox mod. On the other hand, it's not as pants shittingly terrifying as the Wii softmod with its risk of being bricked with anything you change on the system.

This video kind of shows what it's like. Now your HDD mod is working and you've put it in your PS2... but contrary to what everyone online said, it's not a very good fit. The official PS2 kit had HDD rails which held it steady. Obviously, we don't have that. This bothered me quite a bit as you could hear the HDD rocking around if you just slightly bump the PS2. Let's fix that too.

This is shielding from an original Xbox 360 HDD. It's pretty malleable, and already has holes drilled in it that will be the right size for the holes on any HDD. There's really not a lot of space in the PS2 HDD bay, so we'll just need to cut a thin strip of this and mold it to the side of the HDD and screw it in.

That's another 500GB Hitachi Deskstar like I used for the Xbox mod. You can see the strip there that I attached. I was planing on doing both sides, but this one side was actually enough to hold the drive firmly in place.

Now that PS2 warrants the refurbished sticker.

Just kidding, I removed it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

God of War (PlayStation 2) Review

God of War came out at a time when it was ripe to be ignored. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were the worst kept secrets of all time, people were salivating over the next generation game consoles. God of War was a good enough game that it rose above and became a massive success. I even remember playing it at a friend's house back when it came out.

I'm a big fan of beat 'em up types like this, and God of War is a masterpiece of the genre. God of War doesn't reinvent the wheel, instead it perfects it. This is an approach which is often overlooked when creating games, and God of War deserves the highest praise for this.

The game follows the typical strong attack/weak attack/grab layout that is familiar to the genre and adds in magic for special attacks. Your weapons, the Blades of Chaos are pretty graphically impressive for the PlayStation 2 and their sweeping range makes combat a blast. God of War really captures the feeling of being Kratos. You feel empowered with the same rage that Kratos carries with him. The violence is so over the top that it almost borders on humorous at times, especially with the face smashing that Kratos delivers to the Sirens of a later level.

The game plays out in what I consider a pseudo-adventure game format. Areas loop back on themselves, and you do revisit areas but you're essentially in a linear progression broken up into levels. I first noticed this in the 2004 Ninja Gaiden on Xbox. There are puzzles and items collect, but they're compartmentalized and broken up. You won't be looking for items for some kind of end game push, what's in front of you is the only thing that's immediately important. 

For the most part, the puzzles do work well. They're never too obscure, but they can be annoying. A large part of the puzzles consists of dragging boxes, which is about as interesting as paint drying for the most part. In fact, I think this is the most recent game I've seen that has an excessive amount of box dragging puzzles. Positioning things right, getting to a higher ledge.. the puzzles are a bit of relic from the N64/PSX level. It's a small black mark on an otherwise fantastic game. In addition, the puzzles can get a bit of excessive towards the end of the game. It can make you long for the full on action from earlier levels.

One other complaint I have is the lack of similar bosses to the early Hydra battle. This was hyped enough that a demo was actually released with this boss battle. After that, you expect to see many more gigantic bosses.. but it doesn't really happen. There are a few, but it's not enough. It's incredibly satisfying taking down the big bads in this game. 

I've mentioned that the graphics in this game are pretty nice for a PlayStation 2 title. Kratos' character model is pretty high poly, and he's textured well. The enemies look nice, too. This seems to have been made easier by the game's setting. With its ancient Greece setting, all of the buildings are generally just made of large, plain gray stone blocks. This seems to have saved a lot of space and allowed for nicer textures for key environmental pieces and characters with the PS2's limited RAM. The game supports widescreen as well as 480p and holds up excellently.

The plot is actually quite compelling, and I usually don't get too invested in these sort of ancient time epics. Ares, the god of war, has launched an attack on Athena's city of Athens. Athena asks that Kratos kill the god of war by finding and using pandora's box. Kratos has been serving the gods since he called upon the god of war to kill his enemies when Kratos was faced with defeat. Kratos has a very particular bone to pick with Ares (and a reason for his ashy white skin), but I won't spoil it as it is a bit of a shocker if you're not familiar with the lore of the franchise.

The game's music is also stereotypical of your average ancient epic type of movie. I must note though, that there is some ambient synthesizer music that is absolutely fantastic. It first appears in the later stages of the game when you're close to pandora's box and continues to be used throughout. It almost sounds like Vangelis music, and would be right at home on the Blade Runner soundtrack. It sounds odd, but it really fits with the awe of the environments.

God of War is an excellent game. It's one of my favorite PlayStation 2 games that I've played so far, and I fully understand all of the hype that it has now. This is a game that is worth a play, nearly every second is enjoyable. Ninja Gaiden retains top action game honors in my book, but God of War comes in a very close second.

The Score: 9.5/10

Monday, January 12, 2015

Why does Nintendo get a free pass?

There's been a lot of Nintendo love recently. A lot. I couldn't tell you why.

Maybe I could.

Mostly, I'm confused. Are we all talking about the same Nintendo here? I don't think we are. The Nintendo that everyone is talking about is a fun company, focused on the core gaming experience. They only make the best games, and every hot Japanese game is certainly coming stateside.

I'm not familiar with this Nintendo. The Nintendo I'm familiar with is a far different company, and they'll have to do a lot to convince me otherwise. The Nintendo I'm thinking of promised big things for the Gamecube, and then trickled out about one good game a year (two if we were lucky), while forsaking third parties. The Nintendo I'm thinking of ignored a stunning amount of excellent import titles for the DS and the Wii.

Thanks, XSEED!

Think back to only a few years ago. Operation Rainfall was coming out in full force, trying to get the Wii some support. A group of fans were pushing Nintendo to support their own console. This is depressing. It's especially depressing when you consider that the games in question (The Last Story, Xenoblade Chronicles and Pandora's Tower) were all either already localized by Nintendo of Europe or were in the process of localization. Nintendo managed to ignore this for quite a while, and if I recall correctly, they even made an announcement saying they would have news on Xenoblade Chronicles only to go on and announce that they were not releasing Xenoblade Chronicles. Holy shit. That's the customer service equivalent of leading people to the gas chamber.

Someone at Nintendo of America managed to figure this out, hit the OH SHIT button and get Xenoblade Chronicles released at Gamestop. Nintendo of America never publicly acknowledged Xenoblade Chronicles again. Everyone else loved it. I loved it. It was an incredible game. And...? Xenoblade Chronicles was successful enough that Gamestop reprinted it. No one knows what that initial allotment was, but it was big enough that Gamestop charged $120 for it used (the second hand market outside of Gamestop was even higher at times) and then did a new print run. And Nintendo of America never commented on it.

Sure, Nintendo has said that they'll be getting back to "core" gamers. Sure, Nintendo has shown off Xenoblade Chronicles X. The catch here is Nintendo of America. Nintendo of Japan can do all they want to get back to core gamers. If the geniuses over at NOA decide it won't fly though, it won't. Just like Xenoblade Chronicles almost didn't.


The Last Story was also an excellent game. After Xenoblade Chronicles did well enough to warrant massive prices in the used game market (implying everything sold out, economics 101), Nintendo said "fuck no" to The Last Story. XSEED came to the rescue and released The Last Story. They were generous enough to do it in quantities that the game could easily be found in. It was well received, and it seems to have sold well also.

XSEED is not a major company. They published a game that NINTENDO ITSELF published in Europe and did more to make it available and promote it than Nintendo of America did. I understand that Pandora's Tower was a pretty mediocre game, but I still want to get a copy. You see, I like the Wii. A lot. I really do. I think it's a great console, technical shortcomings aside (it really is a fucking mess). But Nintendo of America did its fans a disservice. They did nothing to support the system when Nintendo of Europe was doing it. I don't place all of the blame on Nintendo of America.

I also blame this man:

Calm the fuck down.

It doesn't matter how much of a creative visionary you are, everyone shits the bed at some point. Remember when The Streets released Original Pirate Material? They (he? fuck you.) also released Everything is Borrowed. You cannot base your console around the whims of a quirky guy. 

The Nintendo 64 had a weird controller, but it was practical. The Gamecube put form over function and it failed the system (those miniature discs pushed a lot of 3rd party devs out, even from ports). The Wii put a control gimmick as the primary control scheme and it failed. Now we have the Wii U... and I honestly don't know how the fuck you're supposed to control it.

As far as I know, it supports...

-The Wiimote and nunchuck (along with the classic controller and all variations in-between)
-The Wii U Game Pad
-The Wii U Pro Controller

Holy fuck. I get that the Game Pad is the primary input for the first player... but what do the other people typically use? Is it the Wiimote? Is it the pro controller? I honestly don't fucking know. Does it vary by game? Are you just supposed to play alone?

I honestly think Miyamoto is a problem for the company moving forward. There are a lot of Nintendo franchises, and a lot of them are ignored for stupid reasons. Take F-Zero. F-Zero GX is one of the finest arcade racing games of all time. I absolutely loved this game, and it was one of the few Gamecube games that I really truly had a great time with. I would go so far as to say that it brought me joy. We haven't gotten a new F-Zero since. Why? Because Miyamoto thinks it needs a new control scheme.

Holy shit guy, you can't reinvent the wheel for every fucking game. I get it, you're ambitious. You want people to interact in games with new ways and that means a stupid controller that has no practical applications outside of one game. So, stop it. Knock it the fuck off. It doesn't work. I can have a million different gaming experiences on a PlayStation or an Xbox and I do it with the same controller.

Oh, wait, I forgot another Wii U control method.

This is purely for Super Smash Bros for Wii U (what the fuck kind of a name is that?), and they promptly sold out. To which Nintendo basically shrugged and said "that sucks." Eventually the outcry was loud enough that they went "fuck it, fine, have more" but it's just ridiculous. Does Nintendo hate money? Look at Sony and Microsoft. If they release a peripheral it's never just a one run thing. Sony and Microsoft sell out of things, and then they say "we're working as fast as we can to get more to market." They don't say tough shit. They try. They understand that fans want something.

It's almost like Nintendo is bothered by fans. They seem to have a "what do you want?" attitude instead of "what can we do for you?"

I don't trust the Wii U and I don't trust the 3DS. They both had poorly timed launches. They're stuck in between, and unlike the DS and the Wii they aren't flourishing. I would love to play Bayonetta 2, but the Wii U isn't going to make it and I'm not going to spend the money on overpriced hardware (marginally better than a 360 or PS3 with a much higher cost). There's already rumblings of a new Nintendo console being worked on and typically once those rumblings start coming from legitimate sources they come true sooner rather than later. They messed up and they know it. The New 3DS is less of an incremental console that most can ignore (like the DSi) and more of a full fledged upgrade. This is basically the Game Boy Color to the Game Boy, and Nintendo is doing their best to pretend it isn't so.

Nintendo is still just as shifty as they used to be and always have been. Don't be fooled by amiibos and Super Smash Bros., they're still just as out of touch as they have been.

I'm also still bitter about Last Window: The Secret of Cape West not coming out on DS in America. And fuck you European exporters, $60 is pretty steep for a DS game. Seriously, play Hotel Dusk: Room 215. PLAY IT. Then weep for Last Window.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Virtues of Using the Original Format In a Remake and Digital World

I prefer vinyl, movies on film and playing games on the original console. Some call it being a snob but I think that there's something to be said about getting as close as possible to the original experience. Computers let us have everything now. I dislike emulation, yet I've got several ROMs on every computer in the house if I feel like running through a few levels of Castlevania really quickly. I've got an iPod loaded with hundreds of albums. Most of my consoles are modded so that I can play any game I want whenever I want. But for the most part, I don't.

"WHY THE FUCK NOT?" you bellow, as your monocle falls out and you spill your tea. Well, let's talk about that. Everything that goes into a game is a part of a presentation. From the console that you're putting the disc into to the controller you're playing it on, this is part of the experience. The case artwork, the disc artwork, all of this sets a precedent for what you're about to experience.

I've been playing God of War, so let's talk about that real quickly.

Here's the box artwork for the PlayStation 2 version. This isn't necessarily excellent box art but it tells you what you're in for. This is a game of furious violence and grandeur. Kratos looks up to the challenge, but hesitant or burdened.  The disc art carries a close up of the same image and the pages of the manual look like they're printed on old paper, with chaotic sketches showing the enemies.

Here's the cover to the remastered version:

5 FULL GAMES of sad lion hands in 3D. This takes away from all of the games. I get it, it's supposed to be a budget way to play the older games in the series in an enhanced quality. You've lost part of the presentation.. part of the experience. Picking the game from a menu is much different than being thrown directly to the flaming title screen with Kratos staring back at you. You lose the intensity, you lose the knowledge of what you're about to experience each time. You lose the anticipation and the excitement. It cheapens the game knowing that it's now just stuffed on a disc with four others in the series.

I'm honestly not fond of the HD remaster trend, either. It's running at a higher resolution yes, but typically the textures are untouched and there are other unfortunate changes. By far the worst remaster I've seen is for Resident Evil: Code VERONICA X HD. It's less of a remaster and more of an aborted remake. The game no longer runs on its original engine and instead runs in Capcom's MT Framework. They attempted to add in dynamic lighting where the original game's was mostly static. It's horrible.

In the original version of the game, you could see quite well to the end of the hall and the lighting had more of a blue tint. That creepy doll way in the back was much more prominent, constantly looming. The lighting changes make the game look absolutely atrocious, with colors constantly appearing over saturated. In addition, they attempted to add some sort of depth of field effect and a grainy film filter. The depth of field effect is completely broken because as you know... Resident Evil has static cameras. Though this game was in full 3D and did feature occasional camera movement, it isn't dynamic. The result is just that your character sort of goes out of focus once they move too far away from the camera. It's lazy and sloppy. The cutscenes weren't re-rendered either, resulting in a macroblocked fuckery. The only textures that were re-done were the character's faces; if you look beyond their faces in the in-engine cutscenes, you'll see a blurry compressed mess. No one should have any faith in the Resident Evil Gamecube remake's....remake.

Granted, most HD remakes don't fuck up like this but in this case, you're better off with the Dreamcast version. The console's VGA output is beautiful and scales very well on HDTVs. Too often, said remakes make slight tweaks to the game. Altering difficulty, removing framerate issues.. but even those are part of the experience. Hell, I don't always stick to the original format but that was a pretty extreme case. In its original state Castlevania: The Adventure is borderline unplayable. Using an emulator significantly altered my experience.

Since I mentioned remakes, let's talk about remakes. Since we're already talking about Resident Evil, let's talk about Resident Evil. The original Resident Evil, in my opinion, is a masterpiece. It's one of the finest games ever made. I'm talking about this version:

That's right motherfucker, the Jill sandwich version. With the really bad voice acting. The game is brilliantly paced and everything just works incredibly well. Even the tank controls. You see, that's called atmosphere. You didn't used to be able to do anything you wanted in games. Games weren't always Grand Theft Auto. They had rules; the very nature of a game. That bad voice acting? Wonderful. It was clearly intended to be a pretty serious game but I love b-movie type things and I can't help but have a soft spot for the game. They had good intentions but they reached beyond their means. It's charm; it's character. Sure, the REmake for Gamecube fixed that. It made the graphics better. But it lost its character in the process. It became a grim horror movie taking itself way too seriously. It lost its soul. It wasn't the creators' original intent anymore. It was made bigger and louder, just because it could be. Not necessarily because it should be.

Let's talk about emulators as well. They're terrible. Accuracy has become more of a priority for recent developments, but it'll never be enough. bsnes does a good job at getting closer to how the console actually runs, but I don't think I've ever heard a Super Nintendo emulator that did a good job of recreating the sound. The Super Nintendo's sound chip has a very smooth sound. It's easy on the ears. I'm not quite sure how to adequately describe the particulars of what I mean, but we'll go with the coin sound in the Mario games. It sounds jagged and sharp on emulators, where it sounds smooth on the console. 

This is true of emulated games on consoles as well. I've encountered quite a few strange glitches in Sonic 3 on the Xbox 360 version that I know don't happen on the console version. How? Because I've beat that game hundreds of fucking times, that's how. Just because it has some sort of endorsement or approval of the original developer means nothing for performance. The only real way to ensure a similar performance would be by porting the game with the original source code. Unfortunately, the original source code is frequently unavailable and even then it wouldn't guarantee a 100% perfect experience. 

Using the console itself is even an experience. Picking up a Banjo-Kazooie cartridge and pushing it into the N64 then sliding the power button up and picking up the three pronged controller creates a vastly different mindset and mood than holding down the guide button on a 360 controller and going into your game library and pressing A. The difference in the analog sticks makes movement feel different. The difference in the shape of the buttons makes the timing feel different. Don't take this as an excuse for people who say they just can't play a game that's on PlayStation on an Xbox though. They're just mad they lost.

But what of movies and music, since I mentioned it? Film is a better format than digital. No question about it. Hollywood wants you to think otherwise so they can save a buck. When the Wizard of Oz was remastered for Blu-Ray the original negative was scanned at an 8k resolution. This is a movie that came out in 1939. Avatar came out in 2009 and was filmed in digital at a 2k resolution. In a few years when 4k becomes the standard, Avatar is going to have a lot of evidence of macroblocking and compression artifacts (read: it's going to look as shitty as the movie is). When The Wizard of Oz is released in 4k, it's going to look even better than the Blu-Ray. An entire generation of movies is going to look like shit because Hollywood wanted to save a dime.

Want to know the advantages of film? Watch this:

It's simplistic, but it gives a good overview of the advantages along with some side by side comparisons. The Level 1.1 and 1.2 Dragon Ball Z Blu-Rays were incredible... and then they got cancelled because fans didn't like the film grain and the fact that it was 4:3. So, instead we got another cropped atrocity that had digital noise reduction applied like it was nobody's business.

Vinyl is more subjective. From a technical standpoint, CD has advantages. I believe vinyl is a more accurate reproduction of sound though. I won't go into all that, but if you're buying your music in MP3 format from online stores, you're robbing yourself.

Too often we're just okay with things. By doing that, we're robbing ourselves of something. Next time you want to play a game, why not pass on the ROM and emulator? Why not look into getting the actual console? Next time you want to see a movie, why not go see it at a theater that shows it on film? Oh, wait, you can't. Bad example.

My point is, just because you can get it easier and run it in a higher resolution with an emulator it doesn't make it better. Just because you can download a song on iTunes for a dollar doesn't make it the best bang for your buck. Just because you can make your movie in HD doesn't mean you should. Embrace the experience. Spend the money and treat yourself. Look for the best way to watch a movie, listen to a song, play a game. Enjoy the art as it was meant to be enjoyed.