Sparky's Update - Boy, Do I Suck at These Video Game Things

"You don't have to front on me, dear, so why don't you just give that bloggie here?" -The N.W.A. when asked about the latest Sparky's Update

Why, hello! I didn't see you standing there. Grab yourself some pickled pig's feet, a cold 40 ouncer, and some chaw, son. We're about to talk a little bit business. Yeah, that's right - it's the weekly Sparky's Update, brought to you this week by Golden Grahams and Pepsi Max. I don't actually have their endorsement at all, but maybe by plugging them, it'll get the ball rollin'! This week, we've got a lot to talk about, you and I. First, I'm going to discuss the two games this week that nearly caused me to punch walls (and why I suck at gaming in general). I'm also going to cover my early impressions of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and Tomb Raider: Anniversary, final thoughts on Tomb Raider: Legend, and take an updated look at Golden Sun: Dark Dawn. If that wasn't enough, I'm also going to talk about Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and give my (short) piece on the Whiskey Media craziness. Whew. That's a lot, so let's get started.

You're Better at Games than Me

If you're reading this blog, I can almost guarantee that one simple fact. No matter how bad you are at a game, I'm probably worse. I've been an avid gamer for nearly a quarter of a decade (holy shit!), and while I've beat a ton of games, rarely have I ever played a game on a hard difficulty or specifically set out to obtain 100% completion in a game. I'm usually the guy who plays a game on casual or normal difficulties, content to see out the story as opposed to face any real challenge.

In short, I really suck at games.

A lot of it's laziness. A smaller chunk is my eternal hatred of gaming frustration. I don't find it fun to repeatedly die in games (with certain exceptions, like the brilliant death mehanics in ZHP or Herc's Adventures - now there's a game I'll bet you haven't heard mentioned in a decade). About the only difficulty I enjoy in games comes from puzzle or adventure games, and even then, if I feel my frustration rising to a point where the game is in danger of no longer being fun, I'll happily jump on the Internet to get the solution to the puzzle. My vision problems are a topic I've talked about ad nauseam and aren't the point - even if my vision was 100%, I'd probably still attack games in the same lazy, half-assed manner.

That's not to say I won't turn the difficulty up if it'll make the game more fun. I'm always tinkering with the difficulty in Bethesda games, and I adore the later Halo games on harder difficulties because they never feel impossible. I'd even like to try Gears 3 on a harder difficulty when I get that back. It all boils down to frustration versus reward - if I'm not having fun with a game because of difficulty, then it's just not worth the hassle. Games are meant to be fun first and foremost for me.

This week held a one-two punch of insurmountable difficulty. The first game was Binding of Isaac, which I'd bought off Steam for a measly buck and a half or so. Having heard great things about it, especially that it was a rogue-type (one of my absolute favorite niche genres), I decided to give it a go. The introductory chintzy artwork and sly voiceover were pleasant. The menu screen looked great. I hopped into it and almost immediately hated it.

The difference between my favorite rogue-types and this game is simple. Games like ZHP can be difficult, to be sure, but they never feel entirely impossible. The minute I fought my very first boss in Binding of Isaac, I thought, "There's no possible way in hell I'm ever going to beat this game." It wasn't fun for me. The four directional shooting was imprecise at best, and I'm awful at room-to-room shmups anyways (I still love and hate you, Smash TV). The bosses and enemies have a full range of motion missing from the player character, and can often weasel in at weird angles that I just can't escape from. If I was a better gamer, the challenge might have appealed to me. As it is, I can't stand the shooting mechanics, the awkward movement, and the too-random room placement. Even ZHP had a little reason to its levels, damn it.

Frankly, nothing about this game said, "Play just a little longer and it'll get easier!" Instead, it screamed, "Hey, Sparky, you're going to spend hours of your life wishing you were being hit in the nuts with a 2X4 instead!" That's not a game I want to play. So I didn't.

Goodbye, Binding of Isaac. You won't be missed.

Not twenty minutes later, I found myself switching from my laptop to my 360, popping in a game I eagerly thought would be more my thing - Dark Souls. Yeah, right. I'd watched the Quick Look and thought, "Yes! It looks challenging but I can do this!" Uh, no. Not a chance in hell. Mind you, I was pretty good at first - hell, I even managed to beat the first boss after dying only once. I liked and understood the basic controls (it's all very smooth, with none of the difficulty coming from awkward controls or a bad scheme). There's this odd feeling in the game, a very pleasant one, that the controls are set up to respond as though you were controlling each hand independently. I know it's been done before in shooters and such with dual-wielding, but here, it just feels right.

And it's a good game. I'd even go so far as to call it fantastic. I wish I was better at it. But after that dragon fight, after mopping up a few loops of mobs for souls, I realized that it's a game I'm never going to beat. Hell, I'm not even going to get to the end of the second level. What was, at first, a fun challenge quickly became punishment. I'm not talking about mechanical or gameplay failures, even - it's just a fuckin' tough game. It's no fault but mine that I'm no good at it. But I know, after encountering some ghosts and skeleton warriors in the game, that I'm simply just not ever going to be good enough to get the enjoyment that some people have had. I said it late last week - this game feels like masochism in digital form. Some people are going to love that. I didn't.

Goodbye, Dark Souls. You will always be better than me.

A Castlevania Game I'm Actually Good At

I'm way late on this one, but guys? Castlevania: Lords of Shadows is pretty good! I'm not going to say it's great - there are some problems that drag the experience down just a touch. The core gameplay is that of a basic Devil May Cry-styled action game, which is perfectly fine by me. You gain points to spend on skills, leading to some great-looking combinations and special abilities. The combat is brisk, but it can be highly repetitive in spots, leading to some humdrum moments that can drag the otherwise great pacing of the game down. There are plenty of fantasy cliches, too, which is a bit unfortunate. Yep, you'll fight countless goblins and giant spiders. The environments look great, but in the parts I've played, they stick pretty closely to fantasy tropes. I'm hoping that as the game goes on, I'll see more of the crazy enemy types from prior Castlevania games and less of the generic sword fodder.

That said, the boss battles in this game are nuts. One of them, a boss fight against a titanic golem in the midst of a frozen lake, might be relatively simple in nature (you alternate from dodging his slow, cumbersome attacks, scaling his body, and attacking weak points), but it's done with such enormous scale and style that it definitely winds up being a jaw-dropping "Holy shit!" moment. While I'm still relatively early on, I'm definitely liking this game - it's worth it just to see what the hell is around the corner.

Rantin' and Raidin', A Whoopin' and a Hollerin'

A while back, I had some trouble with Tomb Raider: Legend, specifically in the Arthurian tomb level. I simply and literally could not see the solution to a relatively easy puzzle. I tried looking on Youtube, but that was no help as the video was obviously even smaller and harder to see. A few days ago, I recruited a ringer to help me out. That's right - I went to that oldest and noblest of gaming fallbacks. In other words, I got a kid to help me out. Turns out I was just missing a grappling hook spot. The usual icon was blending into the background a little too well. In any case, thanks to the kid, I managed to get past that puzzle and thankfully had no more trouble beating the game.

Overall, I really enjoyed the basic gameplay. It felt like what a modern Tomb Raider should - the controls are sleek, the gunplay is great, and the environments look good for a game that was essentially designed to work on last-gen systems. It's not entirely without fault - despite the great voicework, Lara is still disturbingly a Barbie-doll fantasy in digital format. The tombs never feel all that expansive, although truth be told, the linearity didn't bug me all that much until I played a bit of Anniversary. Then I realized just how confined Legend really is.

What's really weird is that something bugged me more than the blatantly sexualized Lara - the idiotic way Arthurian mythology is treated. One of Lara's assistants has been apparently living in a goddamn cave his entire life, because he's never heard of anything Arthurian related. Lara and the other assistant provide a fleeting, severely half-assed treatment of the myth. As a former protege of an Arthurian scholar, by the end of the game, I was decidedly pissed at the ham-handed storytelling and sheer idiocy of the way the mythology had been treated by the game's apparently twelve-year old writers. Seriously, they had to have been kids just verging on puberty for Lara's costumes alone, but add in the butchering of the Arthurian mythology and they come off as even more juvenile.

I played just a touch of Anniversary. It's not enough to really warrant a whole lot of time here, but the gameplay is ripped straight from Legend (a good thing), and the levels feel much bigger. Lara's outfits are still as ridiculous as ever, but I guess that goes with the territory.

Simply put, if Tomb Raider is to become a relevant series again, it needs to grow up.

Golden Gameplay

I've been playing Golden Sun: Dark Dawn off and on for the last week or so. I've mentioned before that it's a pretty great little RPG for the DS, combining classic turn-based RPG mechanics with a Pokemon-esque "gotta catch them all" approach to magic. You see, for your characters to gain new spells (called Psynergy) and summons, you have to find little creatures throughout the world and capture them in a fight. Most of them are easy to find and obtain, but a few are only obtainable by carefully searching environments or by solving some clever puzzles. It's an absolutely superb system that rewards exploration with genuine results.

The story itself is still sort of bland, relying far too much on fan-service in regards to the first two games. Almost every major character is either a main playeri in those games or is related to them. It leaves Dark Dawn with very little in terms of original story, which is a shame. Still, it's enough of a story to keep me gaming. I look forward to exploring more of the huge world.


-Upon dankempster's advice, I took up the His Dark Materials trilogy and have recently finished The Golden Compass. I'm happy to say I think it's a great book. The parallel world idea has always fascinated me, and Lyra's parallel England is no different. It's vibrant and alive, full of little nuanced touches that make me eager to see more of the world while leaving some of it to the imagination. The plot is brisk without making any sacrifices in terms of depth or character development. And speaking of the characters, with the exception of Lyra, I'm a huge fan of the way Pullman develops every character, be they big, little, or bearish. And while I'm not a huge fan of Lyra, I do think her character develops and changes enough that I want to stick with her story longer, to see this whole thing through. I'm already about a third of the way through the next novel, and am thoroughly enjoying it, too. More on that later, though - this blog is already huge.

-My dog managed to kill one of my 360 controllers. It was plugged into a Play n' Charge Kit. I'm kind of awestruck at how precisely he managed to kill it. He snagged his foot on the cord and accidentally sent the controller sailing a good three feet from the table it was resting on to his water dish. Had the controller gone a half inch left or right, it would have been fine. As it was, I awarded my dog three points and promptly ordered a new one.

-Regarding the Whiskey Media purchase and split, I'm enthusiastic about the futures of most of the WM sites. Given the openness about Gerstmann-gate and the team's enthusiasm for the move, I think Comic Vine and Giant Bomb will only go on to crazier, bigger things. Same with Tested, though for obviously different reasons. I sort of worry about the future of Screened, but Matt Rorie's a fantastic content producer and I'm sure that whatever happens, he'll land on his feet regardless. I don't buy into any of the conspiracy theory bullshit about the sale of the company, nor do I think people should be so upset or worried. This can only lead to greater things, guys.

And that's it. Whew. That's a hell of a wall of text, for which I'm truly sorry. I hope you all have a great week.