WiiU: Why are you so disinterested?

NeoGAF has a habit of taking gaming news way more seriously than most other places would, and half the fun of an event like E3 is observing all of the arguments and meltdowns that follow as the big three run through their press conferences. Thus, when arguments quickly sparked in to flamewars about how powerful Nintendo's new console is (or isn't), how many jaggies were in that HD Zelda screenshot, or how they're forsaking the Wii's "blue ocean" strategy in favor of begging hardcore gamers to come back, I figured that it was just GAF being GAF - these are the same people who, for example, will over-hype themselves for a game like GTA4, which inevitably develops in to a huge backlash against that game when it doesn't live up to their unrealistic expectations, which then in itself evolves in to a backlash against the previous backlash. Yeah, GAF's a weird place.
 

 Weeoo weeoo weeooo
Yesterday, Nintendo announced... well, they announced something. Similar to when they brought out the Nintendo 3DS, Reggie and Iwata blew through a highlight reel of factoids about what they're calling the " WiiU" without really touching too much on concrete details. Much like the 3DS, information beyond vague promises is being slowly coaxed out of the third parties that are working with Nintendo to produce software for the device. What we do know, though, is that the console has HD capabilities, a touch screen embedded in the controller, and pledged support from a number of developers working on highly anticipated 360/PS3/PC games. Nintendo is acknowledging which demographics they've been neglecting with the Wii, and are taking steps to, essentially, "please everybody" - hardcore gamers who want traditional controls, and casual gamers who just want to poke at stuff to hear funny noises.
 
And yet, as I'm sure Nintendo is quickly rediscovering, those hardcore gamers are incredibly fickle. The amount of lukewarm sentiment I'm seeing - not just from places like NeoGAF, but the entire internet - is shocking to me. Part of that is Nintendo's confusing way of unveiling the device - there's a lot of people out there who still aren't clear as to whether or not this is a peripheral for the existing Wii, or if there's even a console attached to it at all. Nintendo did an amazingly poor job of outlining what the "WiiU" is, and the awkward naming scheme does not help. And even among those who seem to "get it", the WiiU has failed to excite. My question is: Why?
 
When you break it down, the WiiU is like the polished result of every weird experiment Nintendo's been doing since 2005. It incorporates touch, multiple screens, and motion controls, on top of a traditional controller interface, with dual analog sticks, triggers, bumpers, and face buttons. It is, theoretically, a Nintendo DS, Wii, and Playstation 3 all in one console. No longer do you have to worry about buying a Wii for a couple of novelties while the rest of system is flooded with cut-down versions of big budget HD console releases. There's little danger in traditional gaming experiences being spoiled by the Wii's lack of buttons or analog sticks. And the new controller opens the door to a wealth of unique gaming possibilities: Playing a multiplayer game? Everybody with a controller in their hands has a mic. Everybody. Remember some of the weird stuff games like Burnout Paradise were doing with the Playstation Eye and 360 Vision? Now everybody has a camera, too. Don't want to show the world your neckbeard? Touchscreen keyboard for text chat. And with the screen embedded in the controller, you can push the chat window off your TV to keep the interface unobstructed. Heck, imagine being able to browse the Xbox Guide without exiting, pausing, or even overlaying your main game screen. The potential here is incredible.
 
Silent Hill: Great use of Wii motion control, or greatest?
"But we've already heard about potential with the Wii!" I hear you cry. "The number of Wii games that successfully implemented motion controls can almost be counted on one hand! Most of the DS stuff was equally underwhelming! We're not falling for this again!" And you're right. But that was in part due to the fact that you had to make games specifically for the Wii or the DS and nothing else. A Wii game that successfully implemented motion control was difficult to translate upwards to the 360 or PS3. Similarly, titles like Red Faction Guerrilla and Assassin's Creed were difficult to replicate on the considerably weaker tech. Interchangeability was not really worth the time, money, or effort it would take to make it work. This was a problem that was twofold, because it meant many publishers, to make those "specifically built for the Wii and nothing else" titles, had to assemble teams of developers who would exclusively create games for that platform. These teams were often made up of low-budgets and B-tier developers, while the company's best and brightest focused their attention elsewhere, on larger budget and higher profile Xbox, Playstation, and PC games. 
 
Assuming the WiiU has the horsepower third party developers are implying it does, that allows guys like Cliff Bleszinski, Yves Guillemot, John Carmack, Ken Levine, Dan Houser and everybody at Valve Software to look at the console and parlay their existing strengths in to creating a new experience without having to break off and create a Wii-specific team, with Wii-specific programmers, and Wii-specific designers, who are compressing their idea to fit within the Wii-specific limitations. This works to eliminate the prevailing thought of "My ideas are impossible on the Wii, so I'm not even going to consider it" among a lot of high-profile developers. Sure, you can argue that Sony and Microsoft have been providing those options to developers for at least a year already - and you're not wrong. But attach rates on Playstation Move and to a lesser extent Kinect have not exactly been 1:1. There are a lot of Xbox 360s out there without Kinects, and even more Playstation 3s out there with no Move controllers. Trying to sell to somebody who has to own two individual gadgets together is a small market compared to a console that launches with all of these features packed in every box ever sold with the console for its entire lifespan. This leaves the door open for developers to play with the WiiU's more unique capabilities, knowing that the console's entire install base can experience the full suite of control options available. The fruits of this are already starting to appear - Gearbox Software has mentioned the possibility of displaying the iconic Aliens motion tracker on the controller's screen, providing Colonial Marines with a slightly more authentic experience.

The "achilles heel" in all of this is an issue of time: All of Nintendo's hard work setting the WiiU up to be an apology for neglecting "hardcore gamers" could be undone with two simple words: "Next Generation". Despite Sony and Microsoft looking for longer tails out of their console hardware, if either of them announced new console hardware at E3 2012, that would give Nintendo mere months of parity before being dumped back down to the exact same hardware disadvantage they spent the majority of the Wii's lifecycle in. Microsoft has already been spotted hiring engineers for the next Xbox, and while Sony once constantly reminded us that the Playstation 3 was on a "ten-year cycle", there's no way they're going to lag behind their biggest competitor when it comes time to pull the curtain back on the Playstation 4. I'm sure this is a fact that already weighs heavy in many third-party developers minds, given companies like Epic Games teasing the next generation of Unreal Engine.
            

"Samaritan" is currently impossible on consumer-grade graphics hardware - but it won't take long for that to change.
           

Perhaps the impending next generation explains the malaise towards the WiiU: Nintendo is banking on Microsoft and Sony keeping true to their word and riding their consoles out for at least another two years. In actuality, it would not be a surprise to find out that either Microsoft, or Sony, or both are probably having meetings right now discussing ways to snipe Nintendo's play at catch-up as soon as financially possible. E3 2012 is when the boys are separated from the men.
 
But until that other shoe drops, The WiiU is an exciting prospect and I'm interested in seeing how it all shakes out.
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Dr. Hoaxtable is in the house - My Hoax History

There may be grumpy old men who hate April Fools day for all of the attempted trickery that goes around. But honestly, as far as the internet is concerned recent April Fools Days have started to resemble something similar to Halloween - everybody figuratively dons their own silly masks to both entertain and occasionally frighten (but never for very long). The only truly mean part of April Fools Day anymore is when somebody goes the extra mile for their joke and creates something so awesome that you wish it was actually real (A Total War game with Dinosaurs? Yes please).
 
It may come as a surprise to you, but given how much I enjoy Halloween, I equally enjoy April Fools Day. Indeed, I actually have quite a lengthy history of being involved with hoaxes. I've never been entirely sure why; creating a hoax is almost like making a puzzle and watching to see how somebody solves it. Once solved, it's back to the drawing board to create a new and improved puzzle, all heading towards the ultimate goal of creating a puzzle so good that everybody wants to play it but nobody can solve it. April Fools Day has always been, to a certain extent, a day of reflection for me. I often go back and re-visit older hoaxes I've made. Given that this makes for a good blog subject, I'm inviting you all to join me as I take a trip down April Fools Memory Lane...
 

 Genocide City
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 - Genocide City
Probably the first real "hoax" I ever tried to pass off as the real deal, this was a mock-up of an old magazine scan to showcase the lost Sonic 2 Beta level named "Genocide City". Back when I made this hoax (sometime around 2000-2001, I wager), there was literally no information about Genocide City Zone save for some probably-also-hoaxed descriptions of what the level looked like. I used these descriptions as a basis for my hoax, most notably the smokestack in the background belching fire. In actuality, this screenshot is a combination of elements from VectorMan 2, Sonic 2's Metropolis Zone, and Sonic 3's Launch Base Zone. I would've gotten away with it, too - at least initially, if not for the fact somebody pointed out that E3 didn't actually start until 1993 or 1994 - after Sonic 2 had come out. If a beta version of Sonic 2 was to be shown anywhere, it would have been at the Consumer Electronics Show. D'oh!
 
 Underground Zone
Sonic Advance 2 - Underground Zone
I had to take things to the next level. Sonic Advance 1 had dropped in Japan in 2001, and hit the United States in early 2002. Knowing that they were probably working on a sequel, I sprung in to action. Rather than create a single screenshot, I went so far as to program a (very basic) game consisting of a single level, which I proceeded to then record myself playing. Then, I turned out all the lights in the room, played the video back, and took pictures of the screen with my digital camera. Once I had enough images of the game, I registered for an Angelfire account (under a different name, of course) and threw the pictures up there, claiming I had an "insider source" that had gotten an exclusive first-peek at Sonic Advance 2. I even deliberately tried to write in a different "style", as to not blow my cover.  To make sure the page was noticed, I dropped the link in a few well-known chat rooms and let it spread from there. It was a ridiculously complicated setup, but ended up being tons of fun to do. I ended up grabbing a few people, until somebody noted that the sprite for Metal Sonic was ripped from one of the Game Gear games.
 
 Pocket Chief
Halo for the Gameboy Advance
Probably my most well-known hoax, for reasons we'll get to in a moment. It was sort of a crazy time - apparently Microsoft and Nintendo had entered in to an agreement to bring select Xbox titles to the Gameboy Advance, starting with a horrifically poor port of Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee. Rumors began to fly that we may see Halo on a Gameboy Advance, to which Bungie repeatedly refuted. Following in the footsteps of my 2002 Sonic Advance hoax, I took it upon myself to create a simplistic "Halo" game running at Gameboy Advance resolution and proceeded to record a video of myself playing it. Where I changed things up was how I portrayed it - with the advent of Gameboy Advance emulation, the "game" I created was patterned after a popular GBA emulator. The video showcased me opening the emulator and loading a "Halo Advance.GBA" ROM. After playing the game for a minute or two, it would then "crash" and the video would end there. Creating the Halo game was fun - I went a little overboard and gave the enemies special A.I. routines that would allow them to run away from Master Chief if they were wounded, and implemented little touches like sticky grenades actually sticking to enemies. I also searched for some Halo MIDIs - running them through FruityLoops with chiptune instruments and Super Nintendo sound fonts to really capture that Gameboy Advance "sound". Rather than alert everybody to the videos existence, however, I decided to instead "lay a trap" by quietly posting it to Google Video and telling nobody I had done so. Eventually, somebody searching for Halo related videos would stumble upon my creation and the trap would be sprung. 
  
  
 
The wait was excruciating. Every few months, I would check and see how many views the video had gotten. Surely, if somebody had happened upon it and posted it to a major gaming outlet, it would be getting hundreds, if not thousands of views per day. Instead, the video sat. And I waited. And it sat, and I waited. A year passed. Then two. Then, out of the blue, IGN's Matt Cassamassina dropped a bombshell: he had played Halo on a Nintendo DS. Interest in a portable version of Halo was renewed, and not long after, I found a fish tugging on my hook. And not just any fish, but a fish named Kotaku. Somebody had ripped my video from Google and posted it on Gametrailers, which is where it was picked up. Unable to contain myself, I admitted to the hoax in their comments section. Though other Kotaku posters patted me on the back for my accomplishment, I think I upset the notoriously high-strung Brian Ashcraft, because a month later, I found myself permanently banned from the site for life after making a catty comment regarding a story he posted. Harsh!
 
 It's-a me
Super Mario 128
A lot of rumors flew after Nintendo's Gamecube tech demo called Mario 128. Even though Super Mario Sunshine was technically the successor to Super Mario 64, Nintendo maintained that no, that was not Mario 128. Thus, it became customary around E3 time to try and hoax together something for Mario 128. This is one of the many attempts I actually saved. Obviously Mario himself is from Super Smash Bros. Melee, but the environment he's in marks my first foray in to trying to create a hoax in 3D. If you can believe it, the bricks and the pipe are actually a Doom map - I never bothered to learn how to do 3D geometry, but I knew how to do a Doom map, so I used that to create some basic shapes using textures from Super Mario World. A "direct feed" version of that screenshot is here, before I made the HUD smaller.  I forget what was originally on that screen, too. 
 
 Sonic Boom~
Sonic Advance 3
I felt I had to follow up my Sonic Advance 2 hoax with one for Sonic Advance 3. This time, I tried to play off the " Sonic & Knuckles" idea for "Sonic & Shadow". This time I decided to try and mimick the style of a Japanese magazine like Famitsu or something. Which... basically meant I ran english text through Google Translate and hoped for the best. Honestly, this is probably the most lazy hoax I ever made. I mean, just look at those screenshots - it's amateur hour. And that logo? It looks like I made it in Flash (I didn't). Nobody believed it for a second. I do kind of wish the real Sonic Advance 3 would've incorporated Sonic-CD-esque time travel, though. It's kind of mysterious that they've never tried to revisit that specific concept, despite Sonic CD's popularity. 
 
 Blue skies forever
Sonic Rush 2
There was a period of time where nobody was sure if a sequel to Sonic Rush would ever get made. Sega (the publisher) and Dimps (the developer) apparently had a falling out at some point over Dimps' King-of-Fighters-esque fighting game, The Rumble Fish. They eventually patched things up, but there was a good two or three years between the first and second Sonic Rush games, leaving an opening for somebody like me to swoop in and do something stupid. As if you hadn't already guessed by the horrible level art in my other Sonic hoaxes, making tiles for this stuff is a lot harder than it looks. Still, anything's better than that abysmal Sonic Advance 3 hoax. Not that anybody believed this one, either, though. I still like the cloud graphic I made in the far background, though. Outside of the Egg Pawn and the rings, I made all of the stuff in this screenshot. Well, I guess I didn't make Sonic - I think his model was from the PC version of Sonic Adventure DX.
 
 
 Block Tree
New Super Mario Bros. 2
After so many limp-wristed hoaxes, I was starting to lose interest in creating something for April Fools. I couldn't get any ideas together, nor could I successfully execute on them properly. 3D hoaxes were becoming increasingly hard for me to pull off, and I was beginning to doubt my ability to replicate 2D artwork. I practically forced myself to do this one, and in all honesty it turned out better than I expected. The main idea I was going for was to echo Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA), what with the doors, shy guy, and the plants rooted in the floor. 
I actually had a whole series of screenshots planned, too; the Mario model used in this screenshot was actually from Mario Kart Double Dash, and I had models for Princess Peach, Luigi, and Toad posed and ready, in addition to sprites for Ninji and a few other level locales half-finished. If it wasn't for the dopey shy guy sprite in this screenshot, this might've actually been pretty nice to look at. At this point I was done trying to fool people, however, and was just doing this sort of stuff for fun.
 
 Damn Chaos Emeralds
Shadow the Hedgehog 2: Redemption
Shadow the Hedgehog was such a bad game. There aren't too many things that could be worse, save for a sequel. I actually patterned this layout after an issue of EGM I saw. I think it came out really, really nicely; it looks like it really was clipped from a magazine scan. There was even the unintentional side-effect of me trying to do an "E3" background behind the text that ended up looking like the other side of the page fading through - something that frequently happens when you scan the cheap, incredibly thin paper that magazines are printed on. I wish I still had the source file for this - I had originally written an entire paragraph and a half on this game, about planned features and whatever, but it seems I've lost them to the sands of time. When I posted this, I was actually shocked how quickly people recognized where all the individual parts were from: the city street you see there is from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (despite me trying my hardest to pick a non-descript area). The Shadow the Hedgehog model is from Sonic Heroes, and the solders are from The Specialists (a Half-Life 1 mod patterned after The Matrix). Just goes to show you, no matter how good you think you are, you're still not good enough!

 Spin and win time
Telltale's "The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog" 
And that brings us to this year, the first real hoax I've sat down and finished in years. I was going for a similar style like the old Lucasarts SCUMM Adventure Games ( Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, etc.). The idea was that Sega and Telltale would partner, and Telltale would "cash in" on the psuedo-retro fad started by Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 by doing an Adventure Game about Sonic in SCUMM, complete with low-fidelity graphics. I had a lot of fun doing this; it was kind of awesome working in so few colors. I think I'm actually starting to figure out how to do sprite art. Sonic's a little weird looking, but part of me blames that on my scanner, which seems to scan my artwork at crooked angles (either that or I draw crookedly). And before you ask, yes - I drew Sonic's sprite by hand. The Swatbot I cheesed a little bit and just pulled off of Google Image Search. The backdrop is more traditional sprite work. Special thanks to a friend of mine for giving me the idea about the character interaction menu, there. 
 
And that's it! There's a couple of hoaxes I did that I didn't put on this list, generally because they were too lame or weren't ever actually finished. Stay tuned to see if I actually end up doing another hoax next year. ;)
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Oh man, Battle: Los Angeles is such a bad game

I knew I was in for a particularly craptastic treat when I saw a game based on Battle: Los Angeles had gone up on Xbox Live this morning. When a licensed videogame isn't even high enough quality to see a disc-based retail release, it's a good idea to avoid it at all costs. I, on the other hand, having a morbid fascination with train wrecks, immediately set upon downloading the game and giving it a spin. Surprise: it's not very good. It's not very good at all. It was so not good that I had to share it with the world through the magic technologic wizardry of live streaming.
  

   
Battle: Los Angeles is so bad that it somehow slingshots back around and actually becomes sort of entertaining again, strictly by virtue of being fantastically inept in nearly every department. Somehow, somebody was paid to make this "game". Let's run down a list of offenses I myself encountered in my time spent with the demo:
 
  • The game opens with a "motion comic" style cutscene (that features shockingly little motion) that is both completely out of place and blatantly traced from actual promotional photos for the movie. It vaguely tries to set up the plot of the film but mainly repeats movie taglines like "NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME" over and over again.
  •  Obligatory at this point
    As a side note, the font used to display subtitles for these cutscenes is COMIC-SANS. IN A GAME WHERE YOU PLAY AS ONE GUY FROM A MILITARY PLATOON AS HE TRIES TO STOP ALIENS FROM DESTROYING ALL OF MANKIND. COMIC. SANS
  • For whatever reason, most of the dialog spoken by the soldiers (both in cutscenes and during levels themselves) sound like they were recorded in somebody's basement using a $2 PC mic. There's a weird echo to everything they say.
  • In general, the game's sound design is mediocre at best. Aliens sound like animal growls run through a generic "alien" flange filter (there's a preset in Goldwave that sounds nearly identical). Guns lack aural punch and were licensed from some of the most budget sound packs available - keep your ears open and you can hear sfx from Doom 2 and Quake 1 peppered around in the game's ambient sounds.
  • The actual shooting will put you to sleep. Aliens don't do anything interesting and act like boilerplate enemy human soldiers. There is no way to tell when you're actually hitting an alien with anything because they do not react to being shot. 
  • You are lead by the nose from identical encounter to identical encounter. At any time you are free to just wander away from the current shoot out and none of your squad mates will bat an eyelash. None of them can apparently die and it's rare that they actually manage to land shots on the aliens.
 
The only potentially impressive bit is the implementation of "Havok Destruction" physics, but after the Bad Company games, that's not really very special.  I'm serious: you probably shouldn't buy this. It was good for a laugh because of how truly abysmal it is, but I hope nobody actually thinks of wasting $10 on it.
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I made (part of) another game! For you to play!

Four years ago I lost the source code to this in a HDD crash. A little over a week ago, I recovered it. I've spent this last week fixing up the game to get it in to a functional state so I could release it. There's a ton more information about the game in its readme.html file. I highly suggest you read it.

  

You may be asking yourself, "Why did you make a Sonic fangame based off of the worst Sonic game ever made?" - and that's a good question, one that is answered in the aformentioned readme.html:
 

Essentially, the marketing materials from Sega were telling me what I wanted to hear and I fell for it, hook, line and sinker. They were promising a High-Def, Next-Generation return to the good parts of the original Sonic Adventure. I really liked the original Sonic Adventure, but it has aged rather poorly in the decade since its release. An "updated Sonic Adventure" sounded like a really good idea, and the addition of the game being positioned to celebrate the Sonic franchise's 15th Anniversary gave me the unreasonable expectation that they weren't going to let the game be as terrible as previous entries. The next generation hardware also gave them an opportunity to start fresh, and on the right foot. It seemed as if everything was in place for a great game. Instead, we received a serious contender for the worst Sonic game ever made for any platform. It would have been the single worst game of 2006 if not for " Bomberman: Act Zero" also seeing release that same year. I started this project long before I knew how terrible Sonic 2006 really was, though, and it seemed like a bad idea to let all that hard work go to waste.

If, after reading all of that, and watching the video I made for it, you still feel inclined to download the game:
http://blazemp3.sepwich.com/sonic20062d/SONIC2K62D_FINALVERSION.rar (33.6mb)
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Shillin' ...OR: I just got my first check from SurveySavvy



I've talked about SurveySavvy before. I guess there's a lot of services like this out there now, but to my knowledge, SurveySavvy was one of the first - basically, you sign up to do consumer opinion surveys and they reward you with cash. You fill out a bunch of information when you sign up - your likes, dislikes, income, age, so on and so forth, and they use that profile to send you what basically amounts to focus testing. Questions like, "Have you bought one of these recently? Have you heard of this thing? What do you think about our proposed marketing campaign? Are you more or less interested in buying our product?" And it's about all kinds of stuff, too. I've done surveys on everything from EA's marketing campaign for the original Dead Space to, like, refridgerators and home appliances.
 
Depending on where the survey is coming from, you earn anywhere from $1 to as much as $20 per successfully completed survey. Obviously, the higher priced Surveys are a bit harder to get in to, but eventually, you build up a stock pile of cash - real money - and can request a payment. Since signing up to SurveySavvy, I finally found myself with about $30 banked in my account and decided to see if they would actually send me real money or if I had been part of some kind of awful pyramid scheme scam. I requested my check back in early December, and though it took basically two months to get here..

 Yeah, wow, the check was even dated December 2nd
I'm not exactly rolling in dough from this check, but yes, it would appear that SurveySavvy is legit. So if you'll permit me to shill a bit, you should totally sign up. And use my link, too, because I apparently get a dollar for every Survey a referral completes. Seems like a great way to save up some "Rainy Day" money - assuming you don't mind waiting FOREVER to get your check. 
 
Now to go buy that new pair of headphones I've been needing.
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I Finally Bought a Wii: My Thoughts on Three Games.


 Behold, my haul of hauls
You may remember that back in June, I was contacted about winning one of those Xbox "Download & Win" Sweepstakes. You know the type - you see it on the dashboard from time to time, where an advertising something wants you to download a set of gamerpics with their branding and that counts as your entry. I won "a lifetime supply" of Xbox Live Gold and 32,000 Microsoft points, which came out to be roughly $1,900 worth of stuff.  It arrived in August, to the tune of a bunch of cards in individual blister packs. Given that I didn't really need all of what they gave me, and the rules said nothing about being forced to keep my prize, I sold the bulk of it. Selling it was a slow, painful process, as the only place I could actually make sales was Ebay. Just before Christmas, a friend came to me and offered me an alternative place to sell the cards, but even that was sluggish, as by then, Holiday discounts had kicked in and nobody was interested at the prices I was asking. A couple weeks ago, that finally changed, and I ended up selling pretty much all of my remaining stock in around 48 hours. That meant I was sitting on nearly $600 - which was spent on the bounty you see above. It was almost like a second Christmas. (as an aside, I had actually shot a bunch of video of me opening these boxes, but they were incredibly dark and the microphone on my camera is absolutely trash - nevermind the intense guilt I felt actually recording something like that; ignore the fact that I'm now doing it in text form).
 
I haven't gotten around to putting my new processor or graphics card in (I need to back up some files first since I am pretty sure I will have to re-install Windows), but one thing I can talk about is my newly acquired Wii. Believe it or not, I had not ever really sat down and had a go with a Wii, not until I played it over at Ashuku's house a little bit before Christmas. It was there I finally had a go at Wii Sports Resort, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Sonic Colors and saw about an hour's worth of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The takeaway was that yes, I still do need a Wii - and despite the fact that I still consider myself a Sonic fan, it was actually Silent Hill that captivated me the most.
 
So here we are. I've had my Wii for a solid week as of today, and though the bulk of that week has been spent setting up various gray-area aspects of it (it's now a more robust media player than my Xbox 360), I've spent a lot of time with three specific games: Sonic Colors, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Sonic Colors is, well, Sonic Colors - perhaps one of the most thoughtfully-designed 3D Sonic games ever produced. When people describe a game as "Going through the motions", what they're actually describing is a lack of being taught anything. Whether you're aware of it or not, all good videogames are constantly teaching you how to do something. They are teaching you how the controls work, how the enemies work, how to manipulate the world, and testing you on what you know with increasingly complex "lessons", for lack of a better term. When that learning experience is absent, you get the sensation that there's something "missing". Even if the level designs themselves are challenging, if you aren't learning something new from the experience, you can feel that lack of cerebral stimulation. On a long list of other problems, this is something that had effected Sonic games for a long time - and any time those games would teach you something new, it was done in a very dry, text/dialog-heavy manner by simply explaining the solution to every "lesson", even before you knew there was a "lesson" to begin with. This began to change a little bit in Sonic Unleashed, where you could genuinely see the game occasionally making efforts to teach you specific gameplay lessons and testing you on that knowledge. Sonic Colors on the Wii finally takes the plunge and goes full-tilt in that direction, as every level is chocked full of lessons and tests - almost as if it was competently designed by people who actually understand how a videogame is supposed to function! Unfortunately, there's something else wrong with Sonic Colors - something I can't quite put my finger on just yet. Sonic Unleashed's levels were incredible, remarkably intense thrill rides that blew past at speeds that almost felt too fast. 
  

"Arid Sands", one of the last and fastest levels in the HD version of Sonic Unleashed.
    

Sonic Colors definitely feels more neutered in this department. The game is definitely fast - but it's missing a certain element of spectacle that Sonic Unleashed nailed. That feeling of being on the edge of losing control. That's the biggest problem with the game, but there's definitely other stuff - other stuff I think I'll save in case I feel like following through with that video review I plan on doing. It's a good game, though, make no mistake. I do not hesitate to say it is the single most solid 3D Sonic game ever produced. It doesn't even need the qualifier of, "It's good for a Sonic game". It's just good, period.  But after the adrenaline overdose that was Sonic Unleashed, Colors definitely feels... "slow".
 
Donkey Kong Country Returns is a surprisingly retro game. That's not some pun on the fact that it was developed by Retro Studios, or anything. I mean that, for better or worse, they don't make games like this anymore. Now, I haven't made it very deep in to Super Meat Boy, so maybe I'm lacking "teh skillz", but DKCR does not play around. This is the kind of game that is, right out of the gate, immediately challenging, and it only ramps up from there. By the end of the first world I was kind of surprised how frequently I was dying, and by the middle of World 3 I've found myself actually shouting "OH COME ON! SERIOUSLY?" at the TV screen. There is a shockingly large amount of trial-and-error to certain elements of these levels, where things can and will damage you (or even kill you!) without really warning until it's already too late. On top of that, many of these levels are incredibly long - take a look at this speedrun video for a level that made me want to throw my controller at the screen called "Itty Bitty Biters". Despite zooming through the level as quickly as possible, it still takes the guy almost four and a half minutes:
  

This level involved A LOT of trial and error for me.
     
 
You may also notice the fact that "Itty Bitty Biters" there, despite being as long as it is, only had one or two checkpoints. This is the case with most DKCR levels as far as I can tell - your first time through a stage like Itty Bitty Biters can take well over 10 or 15 minutes, with most of the time soaked up replaying the same 2-3 minute chunks over and over and over again. I was planning on happily unveiling DKCR to my Mother, because she loved DKC1. Unfortunately, she was never good enough to pass the first world in that - and considering I can 101% DKC1 with my eyes closed, she'll probably start the first level of DKCR and end up breaking in to tears before even making it to the first checkpoint, or something.
 
And that brings us to New Super Mario Bros. Wii. I was extremely disappointed with the Nintendo DS verison of NSMB; in comparison to the other 2D Marios like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, NSMBDS took little effort to beat. Not only did it suffer from the whole "going through the motions" syndrome, but the game practically refused to be difficult, not even a little bit. I sleep-walked through the game and came away underwhelmed. NSMBW seems to dial up the challenge a little bit and introduces more new elements to spice things up, but I can't get over how heavy Mario feels. This is something I noticed while playing DKCR, too. It just so happened that around the time I was playing these games I also happened to play bits of Super Mario Bros 3 and Donkey Kong Country 2, and this ended up giving me a very solid basis to compare the old entries in these franchises directly to the new entries.
 
The conclusion is that NSMBW, DKCR, and to a certain degree even Sonic Colors favor momentum far more than their forefathers did. Momentum is an important part of any game - without it, controls feel stiff and over-responsive. Momentum lends a degree of smooth movement to characters, and, especially in Donkey Kong Country and Sonic the Hedgehog, momentum and flow was a big component of how levels in those games were laid out. But while DKC2 and SMB3 had momentum that lent the games a tight, snappy feel, in NSMBW and DKCR, our characters feel big, lumbering, and heavy. While that may fit the description of Donkey Kong, it actually makes controlling Mario feel almost like a chore. Once Mario gets moving fast enough, it's hard to get him to slow down, and though I consider myself a person who mastered the old Mario games, I'm finding myself missing jumps in New Super Mario Bros. Wii with alarming frequency, either by overshooting them by a huge distance or not going fast enough and falling short. It actually makes me not want to play NSMBW, because the game feels genuinely difficult to control. It's almost like playing a Sonic game, in a way, except without the high-flying, rollercoaster style antics that typically surround a blue-hedgehog adventure. Instead, you just get a platformer with sluggish, and dare I say downright unresponsive control - something I never thought I'd say about a Mario game officially developed and published by Nintendo.
 
Now if you will excuse me, I have to go VIDEOGAMES VIDEOGAMES VIDEOGAMES ARGH ENTERTAINMENT OVERLOAD
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The Backlog... From Hell!

Jeeze, what happened here? For those of you who know me, I don't buy videogames that often. The number of videogames I wanted to beat - let alone just play - was pretty simple:
 

  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (on Dungeon 8)
  • Mass Effect (Just left the Citadel)
  • Bully (Played one time)
  • Shadow Complex (About halfway)
  • Braid (Going back for puzzle pieces)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (Colossi 8?)
  • The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (Never played)
  • God of War 2 (Never played)
  • Sly Cooper and the Thevius Racoonus (Never played)
 
Not so bad, right? Those bottom two PS2 games were never played because my PS2 broke before I got around to them.  And yet, suddenly, over the last six months, my backlog became this:
 
  • Tales of Monkey Island Season 1 (Never played)
  • Sam & Max Season 2 (Never played)
  • Sam & Max Season 3 (Never played)
  • Bioshock (Never played)
  • Red Faction: Guerrilla (Never played)
  • Batman: Arkham Asylum (Never played)
  • Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts (Never played)
  • Knights of the Old Republic (Never played)
  • Beyond Goood & Evil (Never played)
  • Tomb Raider Legend (Never played)
  • Super Meat Boy (Never played)
  • The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom (Never played)
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (Never played)
  • S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (Never played)
  • Shadowrun (Never played)
  • Viva Pinata (Never played)
  • Assassin's Creed 2 (Never played)
  • Far Cry 2: Fortunes Edition (Never played)
  • Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge Special Edition (Never played)
  • Oddworld: Abe's Oddseey (Technically never played)
  • Oddworld: Abe's Exodus (Never played)
  • Oddworld: Munch's Oddssey (Never played)
  • Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath (Played for 30 minutes, waiting on that patch)
  • Bayonetta (Chapter 9 or 10)
  • Saint's Row 2 (Cleared Sons of Samedi, started The Ronin)
  • Cthulu Saves The World (Played about an hour of this)
  • Costume Quest (Maybe I won't finish this; too repetitive)
  • LIMBO (Saw blades in the city)
  • Perfect Dark (Just rescued Elvis)
  • Prince of Persia Classic (Level 4 or 5)
  • Splosion Man (Started the final world)
  • Turtles in Time: Re-Shelled (Can get to Shredder, can't beat him)
  • DiRT 2 (Completed X-Games Europe)
  • Gears of War 2 (Between a quarter and halfway through the game in Co-op)
  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (on Dungeon 8)
  • Mass Effect (Just left the Citadel)
  • Bully (Played one time)
  • Shadow Complex (About halfway)
  • Braid (Going back for puzzle pieces)
  • Shadow of the Colossus (Colossi 8?)
  • The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition (Never played)
  • God of War 2 (Never played)
  • Sly Cooper and the Thevius Racoonus (Never played)
 
Just writing that out was painful. I went from considering double dipping on some of my favorite games to having enough to last me from now until next Christmas. And the best part is? I've got a Wii on the way, too, which means Sonic Colors, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy... I feel like I'm going to go out of my mind. All of those unplayed games.... it's taking an immense amount of restraint to just not tear in to them all right now, but if I do, I'll just be 20 minutes in to all of them and that'll just make all of this even worse.
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Christmas Haul: 2010

I don't have long to write this as I'm about to head off to a family get-together, so it'll be brief.



 
I really don't deserve such a bounty. This might be the best Christmas I've had in a long time. Thanks, everyone. 


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Black Mesa in Pictures: Or why I still like HL1 more than HL2

 Every year or so, GAF has a "Replay the Half-Life Series" thread. Last year, I played through Half-Life 2 and most of Episode 1. I don't really like Episode 1, but that's another blog post entirely, but needless to say I never made it to Episode 2. This year, I booted up Half-Life 1. I've been holding off replaying it in anticipation for Black Mesa Source, but since it looks like Black Mesa Source will probably miss their 2010 deadline (after also missing their 2009 deadline), I figured it was time I give it a go through again.



I also decided to play the game on Normal difficulty this time. Being sort of a wuss, I used to default to easy mode a lot, but nowadays easy mode has started to feel a little too easy. I've actually found myself craving more challenge - something I never thought I would do - and so I've been making a slow, concerted effort to play more games at harder difficulties. As such, I am used to playing Half-Life and being a one-man-army - blowing through the entire game as an unstoppable harbinger of death. Well, that's partially a lie - I haven't actually played Half-Life to 100% completion in over five years. I start new games a lot, usually make it to around "Blast Pit" (the area with the giant worms) and never get back to it. The added difficulty changed the game up enough that I actually managed to clear the whole thing this time around. When you can't just rush enemies and expect to survive, it's kind of interesting how easily Half-Life lets you play things stealthily. During the "Hazard Course" tutorial area, they specifically teach you that crouching down will make you nearly invisible to enemy detection, and it's shockingly effective. I found myself in quite a few scenarios where I was low on health, and sneaking around while crouched down ended up saving my life.
 
It also reminds me why I love Half-Life 1 more than Half-Life 2. Now, settle down - I don't mean that as a diss on Half-Life 2. HL2 is still an incredible game, one of the best in the industry, but it's also missing a lot of what made HL1 special. There's a genuine sense of action and reaction in Half-Life 1. There's a greater sense that you're part of a larger world - scientists cower when you fire weapons near them, and if you kill one of their buddies (accident or not), other scientists that witness the event will run in fear and refuse to trust you. If you manage not to be a jerk, you can recruit them to your cause so that they follow you around - but they are people, and they will only follow you so far until they become too afraid to continue. Scientists and security guards can be valuable assets, opening locked doors or providing covering fire during an intense shootout. Those things happen in Half-Life 1 because the Player has made a decision that enables them to happen. In Half-Life 2, scenes like that only happen because the storyline requires it. Rebels only follow the player around because they're at that part in the storyline - they automatically join the player when near, and dead comrades are eventually replaced with new ones without any input from the player. Half-Life 2's greater sense of having definable, named characters also removes HL1's sense of chaos. In Half-Life 1, the game's entire plot is relayed through a bunch of people who can only be referred to as "that guy over there". "That guy over there", who is apparently important to telling the story, can be recruited by the player, and can take damage. Most distressingly, he can also die. None of these actions have to happen, but they can (and sometimes do) happen. If a story-related character accidentally dies in Half-Life 2, the game simply fades to black and tells you words to the effect of "Game Over, please try again."
 
And the A.I.!  Perhaps the Combine are technically more intelligent than the soldiers in Half-Life 1, but they're never given a chance to show it. Encounters in Half-Life 1 are set up so that Marines have a tactical advantage over the player. Soldiers actively seek out cover, attempt to flush out camping players with grenades, and organize themselves to flank targets for maximum efficiency. Most Combine soldiers, in comparison, seem relatively stationary - they rarely bother to take cover, and even when they try, there's not usually many available options to safely regroup. Half-Life 1 is full of crates and boxes of monstrous size, offering up plenty of stationary cover. Most of Half-Life 2's crates are generally of small size to make them easy to manage with the gravity gun, and there's not much else that's large enough to be worth hiding behind. As such, most Combine Soldiers have a grand total of two tactical options: Go towards the player or flee further down the same corridor that the player will eventually pass through anyway. Episode 2 tried to rectify this with a sequence where the player is pinned inside of an Inn, giving soldiers clearly defined cover points outside, but up until that moment, there wasn't a whole lot for them to work with.
 
None of this makes Half-Life 2 a bad game, it just makes one that is notably less dynamic than its predecessor. That's not to say HL2 doesn't have some benefits of its own - HL1 ends on a sour note with " Xen", an alien world full of some of the toughest creatures in the game and some absolutely brutal (and seriously out-of-place) platforming challenges. HL2's final Citadel assault is at first incredibly intense firefight before becoming almost tranquil, with an extremely lengthy tour through the ranks of the Combine war machine. HL2's last battle is confusing, until you finally learn the trick to it - unlike HL1's battle with the Nihilanth, which is aggravating and borderlines on being just plain silly. I may have forced myself to play the game on normal difficulty, but when it came time to brave the depths of Xen, I ended up just turning on God Mode for invincibility.
 
With HL1 out of the way, I fully expect Black Mesa Source to finally see release sometime in the next couple of weeks, just to spite me finally breaking down and playing the original game again.
 
Edit: If you're wondering where the models in my screenshots came from, hit up the Half-Life Improvement forums. Half-Life Improvement is a community dedicated to remodeling and retexturing Half-Life, Counter-Strike 1.6, and a handful of older games. All of the models in my screenshots came from there.
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To Developers Porting Old Shooters to New Platforms

So Quake Arena Arcade finally came out on Xbox Live this week. If you weren't aware, Quake Arena Arcade is the XBLA port of Quake 3 Team Arena, and it was quietly announced in 2007. It's languished in development limbo since then, occasionally making playable appearances at locations like PAX. I believe at one point, John Carmack even admitted it had been flat out canceled. It's a serviceable port of Quake 3, with all the features you remember from the original release of Team Arena. The team that ported it, Pi Studios, went the extra mile, though. QAA features updated lighting, a new scoreboard system (that gives out awards for things like being "most dangerous", etc.), and a new scoring system similar to Pinball FX2's "Superscore" system (it adds up all of your lifetime stats in to one overall score for the friends leaderboard). But it was specifically the improved graphics - the addition of lightbloom and what looks to be (to my eyes) a more detailed shadowing system - really made me wonder why more companies who port their old shooters to XBLA don't make an effort to update their graphics.

With companies like id making their old engines open source after a while, often you'll find a group of crazy programmers out there who take it upon themselves to keep those games up to date. Not just functionally, but graphically, as well. Sometimes these packs don't always turn out the best, but when they do, it's actually pretty impressive what has been accomplished. Just look at Doom and Quake:

But the one I think is most impressive is eDuke32 with "HRP" (High-Res Pack) and Duke Plus enabled:

Whenever you see a company re-release one of their old shooters on a modern console, the primary thing that stops me from buying in to them is the fact that you get this kind of stuff on the PC. Dig out that old dusty copy of Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition, and after transplanting it to an updated engine, it almost looks like a brand new game. Why can't developers do this kind of stuff officially? How amazing would it have been if 3D Realms had updated Duke3D to look this awesome? A lot of the work has already been done for them - throw some money at the community, do a little bit of polish work, and publish that. I would re-buy Duke3D for $30 if 3D Realms went through and polished up eDuke's "High-Res Pack" to match professional standards (some of the monster models look pretty funky and could definitely use it).

And the best part about all of these projects is that they're still technically running on top of the original game data. While this means some general benefits (the game controls exactly like you remember), it also means that for purists out there, there is the all important ability to simply turn the new effects off. Or even better: pick and choose which updated effects you want to apply, and which ones you want to ignore.

But no way am I going to spend even $10 on a basic port of a game I already own. Admittedly, Duke 3D did try and include something new - a weird "rewind" feature, and Doom 2 for XBLA has a completely brand-new episode, but I can't help but feel these companies are missing an opportunity by ignoring what the communities centered around their old games have already accomplished.

And so far, Quake Arena Arcade represents the only game to even attempt to update the original's graphics in any shape or form, even if it is just a little lightbloom.

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