MGS: Ground Zeroes Thoughts

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is interesting in that it feels like Kojima making a proposition to the gaming world. “Here’s the variety you can have with a single well-designed location and systems.”

The weather and time changing the way the game plays is fantastic. You go from the low-visibility (for both you and guards) of the rainy, nighttime hurricane in the Ground Zeroes mission to the calm sunny day of the second mission. It changes the feel and the approach to very similar infiltration tasks.

With some scripting alterations you can create a surprising amount of gameplay variety in the engine as designed. It doesn’t always work out great, I will say the third mission which is mostly just a helicopter turrent-gun style sequence is generally boring. Not because it’s badly done, it’s competent, but it’s an over-familiar kind of game mission at the moment and this one has nothing to really differentiate it.

Still, this is a proposition I’ve been behind for a while. Tight, smaller-space locations with strong design can hold a huge amount of variety, and with a focused visual development can often look more convincing than the vast repeat-necessitated landscapes that many games (lots of which I love) have to use.

I’ll always bring it back to Shenmue, such a formative game for me, because the first game had a very small, even for the time, playspace overall. Yet it was, outside of some textures and understandable models that repeated in the real world, largely unique. Every street was it’s own street, every shop a full location for itself, even if you never have need to enter it in the course of a straightforward linear playthrough. The abundance of detail gave the small location character in a way very few games ever manage and a sense of reality that broke through the now-dated graphics and complemented what Yu Suzuki was attempting to create.

Titan Souls – My Thoughts

I wanted to like it. I really did but the game completely ruined itself with the design of the fights, and when that’s the whole game it’s a pretty big problem. A few points stuck out to me:

1) The one-hit kill/death setup isn’t inherently bad but it doesn’t work here. You die fast and often and then you wait a short, but painfully cumulative time before you can try again. As I mentioned, pretty much constantly, an instant restart would help but I don’t think it would solve some of the problems.

2) Death teaches you nothing. In a game like Dark Souls or God Hand you die a lot but, most of the time, that death teaches you something. You learn a technique that works or one that doesn’t, you build your knowledge and as you approach the situation again you can go in feeling like you’re better prepared. Titan Souls has none of this, sometimes a bosses’ weak point will be obvious and you can just try to attack it, sometimes it’ll have no clear weakness and you’ll be fumbling to solve the puzzle of it blindly. If you had a life bar, you’d feel better about figuring out what hits work as there could be some indication you’re on the right track, even as simple as making the enemy flash when hit. Since you just die, die and die again you can have solved the puzzle but not know that because there’s no indication and the finickiness of the weak point can have you endlessly searching for another option. Someone on my G+ also nailed one point on the head, fights are at their easiest the moment you start. The ideal run to any fight is to hit them on their first exposure of the weak spot, anything after that scales in difficulty and frustration, and it again lacks any more meaningful info the longer you take.

3) The Overworld experience means little. In Shadow of the Colossus you spend a good deal of time simply traveling, searching for the target and in that time you drink in the spectacular world around you. It uses the ambient storytelling we often hear about in the best possible way, giving you a feel almost akin to a historian in a grand mysterious place. It’s varied and crafted so well that the journey is as much a part of the experience as the fight. Titan Souls aims for this but misses by a large margin, the world feeling overtly gamey and unnatural, exploring it rewards you with… nothing. The pixel art is nice but the world is oddly static and dull, with no character and an unfortunate reliance on game cliches like “Ice Area” and “Lava Area” that just hammer home the generic feel. More lessons from their inspirations such as SOTC and Zelda would go a long way.

4) Bosses look decent but, like the overworld, don’t really have their own character. Maybe there is a story to this land, something the developers know, but it’s not apparent to me as a player. They are hugely disparate without anything that really ties them together with any central narrative or concept. Fighting them also often feels very similar boss to boss, usually in a dull flat arena you avoid them then hit them in the front or back. The best difference I found was the water-dragon type enemy in the Ice Level and that ended up being a mashup of a Colossus and the fourth form of Chaos from Sonic Adventure, though I’m not really docking it marks for that. Again I must rep this person on G+ with his mention of the vertical movement of the bosses in an oblique perspective situation being extremely hard to judge, making bosses more annoying to fight than they rightfully should be.

As it stands Titan Souls is more of a recommendation to play its inspirations again, rather than it. In the same way 3D Dot Game Heroes veered too close to Zelda, but without matching the quality, Titan Souls does the same for SOTC, Dark Souls and Zelda, replay a classic instead.

A Horrible Dismissal

“She was sent to Auschwitz and was going to be experimented on by [Josef] Mengele and was observing his work and started correcting him,” Levine tells me. “She was a high-operating autistic savant. She said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you might as well do it correctly.’ The morality never entered into it. It was her love of science.” Tenenbaum’s story takes a sharp turn as she begins to help conduct the horrific medical travesties in the camps.

That same disconnection from empathy is what allowed her to manipulate young girls into the ghoulish creatures known as Little Sisters. “She never brought the moral angle to any of her scientific works, whether it was her helping experiment on Jews in the camps or working with the Little Sisters,” Levine says. “Because of her autism, it never cracked through. She was disconnected from any human aspect or any sense of empathy. Then she had this moment and her empathy comes rushing in as she’s able to see what she’s done for the first time.”

That is a passage from an interview conducted by Mike Futter of Ken Levine for this article on Game Informer

I am pretty grossed out by this.

Autism is a spectrum condition that people are fighting very hard to have understood. There is for it, as there is for most disabilities both mental and physical, a lack of knowledge and understanding from the public. Many people fear or hate those with disabilities, many think that they are less of a person and deserving of violence or harassment.

A condition like autism, which is very wide ranging, is one that people attempt to boil down to an impossible simplicity, a simplicity that often creates a negative portrait of the individuals who have it. Having a character commit incredible atrocities, involving her with some of the most famously awful acts of all time, and saying they’re capable of it because of their autism isn’t a protective blanket on the character. It isn’t an excuse that renders their actions less power, it is something that paints a very negative target on autism. It suggests that autistic people can be dangerous because of their condition, that they’re a strange other who is capable of something unthinkable.

I’m not happy with how this was presented, and I’m certainly not happy the flippant understanding of autism that appears. It’s an insult to those with autism and a plot point that has no real need to exist.

Bearing Bad News.

Dragons aren’t real.

I hate to be the bearer of terrible news but Dragons aren’t real, nor are Elves and Orcs. Magic isn’t possible. Giants aren’t out there herding woolly mammoths. I can’t hike a continent in half an hour and people do get mad if I jump on their tables and kick everything onto the floor while waving a knife and wearing only ragged underpants and a helmet.

Are we clear on this? Fantasy is fantasy? Shit, the name kind of gave it away. We accept that video games are, in the vast majority of cases, a complete fiction don’t we? We’re on the same page there right?

Though I suppose we can’t be because I keep seeing people cry about “accuracy” when it comes to video games. Inevitably they’re crying this in response to things like people suggesting that perhaps a game doesn’t need rape or could use some non-white characters. “Accuracy!” they cry, referring to history as if the fact that women and people of colour were treated even worse in the past somehow must be represented in their game of LEARNING TO SPEAK DRAGON AND SHOUTING GOATS OFF CLIFFS.

“It’s accurate to the military!” they cry about not having women soldiers, despite the fact we do and their game involves remote controlling a dog through a war torn future United States.

Of course when you suggest that massive breast-revealing armour isn’t accurate to history suddenly artistic licence reappears. It’s ok to do that because it’s not real!

It’s almost as if their arguments aren’t based on anything beyond being spiteful little bigots who want everything their own way. It’s almost as if their core hatred for people different from them informs their arguments and their crusades are nothing more than outlets for the pathetic wet fart that constitutes their personality.

Who’d have thought eh? Who’d have thought?

Dark Forces and the older FPS

Dark Forces lured me into the recent Star Wars Humble Bundle sale. In the last couple of years I’ve grown to appreciate the older era of FPS games, those which followed in the wake of Doom’s release. It’s hard to believe it now but at the time FPS games were often referred to as ‘Doom Clones’, regardless of what unique qualities they possessed. True, many games companies were following in the enormous wake of Doom but there was a lot of variety and some truly great games.

Dark Forces stands up as a fun, ambitious game even now, some 19 years after its initial release. It has the swift movement and “kill anything that moves” arcade element of Doom, but it has a story and style straight from its cinematic progenitor. The Star Wars theme isn’t just a coat of paint to the game; it feels like it informed every part of the development. Weapons look, act and sound like their film equivalents, the blasters lack of accuracy over distance feeling almost comically loyal to the nature of Star Wars fire fights. Some levels are set within places seen or mentioned within the films, yet the story doesn’t overreach like the absurdly out of place yarns spun by The Force Unleashed, it is a small side story that lets you be a part of the wider Star Wars world.

What I appreciate of older FPS games, that I feel has been somewhat lost to the genre, is the freedom to explore the space. The genre has become better at driving players forwards, better at giving them thrills and delivering story beats in bombastic spectacle, but it has, in some ways, given up the wider spaces to multiplayer gaming primarily. Exploration is now mostly given to games that are parts of hybrid genres, like the FPS RPGs, and the pure shooter doesn’t see as much allowances for explorative freedom. Shadow Warrior (2013) was a great game for trying to stay true to the play elements of old FPS games while bringing in modern refinements and attitudes (especially ditching the absurdly offensive racial shit of the original game) but it’s a rare one in the midst of a more current standard approach. I don’t think that we need to really lose either type of play in the genre, but as the market stands games are still driven by adhering to popular trends and since the FPS has, from Doom, been synonymous with advancing graphics tech the indie space has a harder chance to break in.

There are downsides to explorative freedom. All Metroidvania titles hits the point where you aren’t quite sure where to go to continue and that can easily lead to player frustration. A frustrated player is one that quits and that’s a very real danger I acknowledge, but what we gain in freedom is often worth it. Take the titles in the Zelda franchise for instance, the main quest is usually guided very directly and obviously, which is great, but the most satisfying moments of play tend to come from what we discover ourselves. Finding the side quests, noticing somewhere that might lead to a heart piece, they’re treasures to hunt and it’s that moment of freedom that creates the sense of triumph.

It’s not an easy equation and I don’t fault designers for following the trends that have proved popular, but I do cherish the moments where I can play an FPS that gives me freedom, allows me to play within the space they’ve designed.

Reminiscing on why I bought a PS1

I was trying to wait to buy an N64 when choosing a console to follow the Mega Drive. As much as I loved Sega, and still do, the Saturn had such a terrible looking lineup and I remember seeing videos of BUG! and Clockwork Knight and wondering why I’d bother when the Ultra64 promos looked so damn good.

I even played the N64 at Tomorrow’s World Live months and months before it came out, queuing for over an hour to get 15 minutes on Mario, which was fantastic. In the end though the lack of a launch date for the UK forced my hand and the PS1 looked mighty impressive, so I saved up and got one on launch day.

The N64 wasn’t released for another year and a half which was absolutely ridiculous. Sony took the UK market in that time, using their teenage-focused campaigning and games to push Sega to the fringe. When Nintendo finally arrived with expensive cartridges, blurry textures and no room for the kind of flash that CDs were showing for they couldn’t make much of a dent.

That set the stage for the UK market for a long time. Where before it had been a roughly equal bout between Sega and Nintendo here (unlike the US) the UK became a Playstation place. The Dreamcast died miserably, helped along by Sega Europe’s fucking atrocious ad campaigns that did things like advertising Soul Caliber, at that time the prettiest game on anything, by showing a woman writing an e-mail. The Gamecube and Xbox did decent business but not nearly as much as the juggernaut that was the PS2. It was only partway into the 360’s life that the market opened up again, thanks to Microsoft selling the 360 for the converted price as opposed to Sony who just replaced the dollar sign with pounds.

Nintendo resurged with the Wii, and the gameboy and DS line ensured they were never truly gone, but I’ve always wondered what the market would have been like here if the N64 had released when the PS1 did. On the english-language side of the internet the realities of the UK market are often ignored, or assumed to be the same as the US, but it’s been quite different. 

The Worst Super Mario

A friend on social media posed a simple question yesterday:

“What’s the worst Super Mario game and why? (Just talking about platformers; no RPGs or sports games allowed)”

At first this seemed easy enough to answer, but in doing so I ended up thinking deeper on the idea. Mario is, without a doubt, the progenitor and single most successful platform game series ever made, even if your personal preference lies elsewhere no other series has had such an incredible run top quality games. Sonic had his heyday and, as most people are all too aware, is more of a joke than a serious contender these days. Crash Bandicoot left us, Rayman faltered for a long while and most other contenders are far too recent to make the challenge.

So what is the worst entry in a fantastic series? There are several challengers I could think of in terms of a popular opinion. Super Mario Bros 2, the US and European version, is often mentioned for beginning life as another game and being so divergent from what is now the core Mario gameplay; yet it certainly isn’t the worst. The game itself is still fun to play, with certain character mechanics becoming established traits, and several enemies that are now beloved parts of the Mario roster originated here.

Super Mario Sunshine is popular pick as it came as somewhat of a disappointment following up Super Mario 64. Of course, in truth, there was never a way for anything to live up to the expectations that Mario 64 created; it was a landmark game that gave most players their first taste of truly brilliant platforming in 3D. Unless Sunshine could offer something similarly revolutionary it was always doomed to disfavour. Sadly it also had several issues of it’s own with its awkward camera, groanworthy cutscenes and some levels that just didn’t play as well as they should; even then it’s still not the worst. It’s a lot of fun, visually lovely and imbued with the charming spirit that is a part of every great Nintendo game.

That’s the key. In their best days many games companies have a certain feel to their output that is entirely unique to them. It’s something that is incredibly hard to define yet, when you look at it, becomes quite apparent. Take the Dreamcast days of Sega where they had bright, wonderful, crazy games that burst with life and experimentation; Jet Set Radio, Shenmue, Space Channel 5, Crazy Taxi; all playing wildly differently yet all imbued with the same spirit. Konami’s action output of the 8 and 16-bit days, Contra, TMNT: The Arcade Game, Sunset Riders, Castlevania, all different yet all keenly Konami. Nintendo has, and continues to have, this to their first party titles; they’re joyous, polished and charming affairs that have their own sense of playfulness. This is true of the vast majority of the Super Mario games.

Except one, in my own experience. New Super Mario Bros on the DS is a Mario game in mechanics, a Mario game in look, but it lacks that Nintendo spark. I’m specifically pointing to the DS version because while the game was mechanically, and visually, similar in its Wii incarnation the addition of the 4-player mode gave it back some (yet not all) that charm that was missing. The DS game was clearly made well in most respects, the controls were fine, the levels worked and it gave you a polished platforming experience but these pieces lacked the soul that gives Nintendo games their unique appeal. Were it a separate entity from Mario, from another company it might be more forgiven, but as part of such a brilliant lineage it fails to live up to all that surround it.

New Super Mario Bros. You are the worst.