Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Quick Update  

Just a quick one today. As much as I'd love blogging to pay my bills... it doesn't.

The day job calls.

Writing: Got some good work done last night on my new short story and I got some great feedback on the last one, Love Means Leaving Together. Now that things at home are settling back into their old grooves, I'm going to be cranking up the story writing and dialing back the games writing for a bit. You've been warned.

Games: In yesterday's GameDaily, there was a brief report that porn star Tera Patrick will be providing one of the voices in the upcoming Saints Row 2. I had to scratch my head a little on this one... I'm all for quality voice work in games and I think it adds a lot when it's done well, but to be perfectly honest, I could care less about having a recognizable "name" in my games.

There are a ton of absolutely fantastic voice actors (VAs) out there who do a better job than some of the so-called stars that producers and drop a ton of money to hire. I don't think anyone from Hollywood genuinely does a better job than the good VAs, and according to all sources, voice actors cost a fraction of what TV or movie stars do.

Additionally, when I do hear a movie star's voice, the first thing in my head is "Oh, that's so-and-so doing the voice" instead of simply hearing what the character has to say and buying into them. It's a distraction.

You wouldn't believe how long it took to find a not-naked picture of her.

Anyway, what made this announcement really puzzling is that Tera Patrick isn't even a regular star... I mean, is anybody really going to notice that any moans and groans that find their way into the game are actually hers? And if she speaks, is anyone going to recognize her voice if she's not moaning and groaning?

Including her in Saints Row 2 seems more like a way for the devs to hang out with a porn star than a genuine effort to include something that's going to add real quality to the game... unless THQ is thinking of adding their own version of Hot Coffee, that is.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Casual Connect, Part Two  

The coverage continues…

The next day at Casual Connect, I had less time to go to presentations since my schedule was split between general events and meetings. However, the highlight of the presentations I did manage to take in was most definitely “Fairies and Dragons”, given by Brian Robbins of Fuel Industries.

The games were on CD and packed with a figure. Available in the UK and on eBay.

Basically a postmortem of sorts, Brian's presentation told the tale of how a chance meeting led to the opportunity for Fuel to partner with McDonald's Europe in delivering casual-style gaming to kids all across the EU via happy meals. Listening to him explain the design process of a game intended to keep a five-year-old child happy for 15 minutes was quite unusual in this era of high-octane blockbusters and fathoms-deep player experiences. Also unusual was the positive outcome of Fuel being able to retain rights to their IP after such a project.

An interesting factoid from Brian’s talk: According to McDonald's, 33% of happy meal toys never leave the restaurant, and of the 66% that do, 33% never leave the floor of mom and dad's car. From a Toy Story perspective, it seems more than a little sad to me that only a third of those smiling pieces of plastic ever make it home.

Somewhere, Buzz Lightyear is mounting a rescue effort.

The rest of the day was something of a blur. Being that Casual Connect is not open to the general public, there was no massive show floor or hordes of sweaty casual game fans to plow through. Consequently, many of the talks given were business-focused with a separate track devoted to mobile (phone) gaming.

Interestingly, many discussions were almost of a “how-to” nature with words of wisdom and anecdotes meant to give guidance to people who develop on a small scale. Several of the panelists and attendees who actually made the games came from studios of five people or less, so there was much discussion of the pros and cons of developing through ‘virtual’ offices, hiring outside contractors for graphics and sound, and comparing different business models.

Carrying this microscale, intimate theme forward, in the foyer of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall and the common spaces of the event it was quite clear that many of the attendees knew each other, a pervasive small-world atmosphere easily detectable. Discussion of who was working on what, and which studio had job openings where were often overheard amidst of the constant susurrations of the media and business-side people talking numbers and sales.

As I mingled through the crowd and spent time in the rooms, one thing that occurred to me over and over again was that casual games are in a massive state of flux along with the growth spurt they've been experiencing in the last few years, and everyone is still trying to figure out what's going on.

Far from being the corporate monoliths and impersonal studios that are traditionally on display at larger trade shows like E3’s of years past, the people at Casual Connect were just that -- people. There was very little pretense or corporate façade to punch through; it was more a matter of simply walking up to a person, saying hello, and interacting on the spot. With such a warm atmosphere and everyone quite eager to talk, the overarching attitude and dynamics of the event were worlds apart from what would be considered normal in the console sphere.

Will it last? I hope so.

Due to some previous commitments, I was not able to attend the third day of the conference. However, I did manage to squeeze in a few more social events before leaving Casual Connect behind.

The first was a small mixer put on by Big Fish Games. The two hotel rooms that were rented out filled up quickly, people queuing up for the free drinks and sushi catered by Dragonfish. Big Fish are great hosts, but speaking from a culinary perspective, I don't have much respect for Dragonfish itself… it's positioned as a hip, upscale eatery, but I've always found the quality of the food to be lacking. But, I digress…

Yes, this sign is actually IN the water.

Afterwards, I made my way to the Spongebob-themed party put on by Nickelodeon at the Seattle Aquarium. The entryway where tourists usually gather was filled with cocktail tables, a DJ, and three open bars within eyeshot. Already impressed, I wasn’t expecting the entire space to be open and accessible… partygoers were free to wander the entire aquarium and never had to go more than a few feet between refreshments. Bartenders hung out next to the tidepools and jellyfish while waitresses made regular rounds with a variety of foods like “kelp” fries and, of course, Krabby Patties. The highlight? Deep-fried pickles… absolutely delicious.

The weather was perfect as the sun went down on the decks overlooking Puget Sound behind the exhibit area, and the constant flow of food, drinks and music ensured that everyone was having a fantastic time. Absolute class, from top to bottom. I can't imagine how much it must've cost Nickelodeon to put on a party of this quality and magnitude (the alcohol cost alone must have been insane) but the king's ransom they must have paid was well worth it -- It was a perfect way to end my time at Casual Connect.

Here's to you, Nickelodeon... That was a world-class shindig.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Casual Connect, Part One  

July 23 was the first day of the Casual Connect conference taking place in my hometown of Seattle, Washington. With the ‘c-word’ on everyone's lips and this large new segment of game development gathering so close to my house, how could I resist?

Occupying Benaroya Hall (usually home to the Seattle Symphony) on the corner of scenic 3rd and Union, the opening speech was given by the CEO of RealGames, Harold Zeitz, with an assist from Casual Games Association director Jessica Tams. It was a little awkward and stiff, but I could appreciate their energy.

The next talk was a keynote given by Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish Games. Big Fish is the world's largest distributor of casual games, and they've recently done some research in conjunction with NPD on disaggregating the market segments that make up the casual consumer base.

Although there were many interesting bits to chew on, the study that his speech was based on had a group of roughly 2000 individuals… considering the scope of what the casual market is estimated to be (I heard someone mention anecdotally that Big Fish itself has somewhere in the neighborhood of one million transactions per day) I felt that 2000 was much too small a number to produce reliable results from. In addition, the categories that Paul was outlining were not clearly explained before he launched into the meat of the presentation. A little more organization would have increased the impact of the research substantially.

Trip's still got the debbil in his eyes

Next to take the stage was Trip Hawkins, current CEO of Digital Chocolate (DChoc for short, as he informed us) although he’s better known as the founder of Electronic Arts, the man behind the 3DO, and an all-around radical element in gaming for the last 30 years. I've never seen Trip speak live before, and I was immediately overwhelmed by the presence of his ego. I am quite positive that low self-esteem is not a problem he suffers from.

The highlight of Trip’s piece was that he feels the term ‘casual’ is misleading and inappropriate for the reality of this growing market. Instead, he posited the term ‘omni media gamer’ as being more accurate in describing the sort of person who will play a game or be interested in the electronic entertainment regardless of the format. Although he had me rolling my eyes a few times (was he really the one who told Steve Jobs that the Apple needed a mouse?) I actually agree with him on this point.

Walking the floor, talking with people and generally just taking in the scene, I became more and more convinced that, like Trip says, “casual” is a lazy label that doesn't define the reality of what these games are or who plays them.

Personally, it seems to me that “casual” is really more about having a low hurdle to get over before actually getting into a game. For example, in the What Women Play panel that came later in the day, much was made of the fact that the sorts of games that are being sold in huge numbers have an advantage in that the people playing them are already familiar with computers -- they don't need to learn about which console is better or how to connect one to a TV screen, let alone what this HD business is all about.

For a person who likely uses a computer at work and probably has one at home, clicking a few times and getting a screen full of gems to match in a matter of moments is a relatively easy and painless process compared to the rising cost of console buy-in, the complex nature of console game design, and a persisting image of consoles being "for kids". Taking the Wii’s philosophy of opening games up to anyone to the next degree, casual games don't require any special knowledge, they don't require much money up front, and many of them have extremely wide appeal due to their relatively simple nature.

Further cementing the idea that casual games are anything but was the women’s panel I just mentioned.

Taking place across the street from Benaroya at the Triple Door restaurant/jazz club, the women assembled from the customer base of (a site claiming to have the world’s largest game community) painted a picture of serious dedication, bordering on addiction. In fact, I'd say that the people they chose were pretty hard-core “casual” gamers, each reporting extended play sessions between 4 to 10 hours a day – far more than I ever manage myself.

It's scary how much these women love their casual games.

Although it's true that most casual game designers say that their projects are meant to be played in short bursts, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the reality was that the people who play these games are every bit as devoted as those who sit down for some Call of Duty multi on Live, or those who regularly get their characters up to level 99 in every JRPG they play.

For more information on casual games and on this conference, click here to visit the website of the Casual Games Association.

More to come... I've still got a drink ticket left.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Casual Connect... in process  

I was working on getting my Day 1 impressions of the Casual Connect conference up (it's happening in Seattle as we speak) but fatigue from a long day got the best of me... check back tomorrow for the scoop.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Getting In Gear  

Now that my son has been dropped off back at his other house, it's time for us to get back to our non-child-having routines… I don't mean to sound so glib about it, but if I started blogging about the emotional dynamics of how this process actually occurs, this would turn into one long diatribe about the unfairness of the family court system,the soul-rending trauma of missing family members, how there just ain’t no justice in the world, etc. etc.

I may go there someday, but I'll spare you the gory details for the moment.

For now, just a few random bits to clear off my table:

Writing: Today will be the first day that I get back to the grindstone. I'm considering doing a rewrite for the ending to SIFT, but that’s sort of a big deal and I'm just kicking around the idea for now.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for some feedback on my most recent short story Love Means Leaving Together, and I plan on shopping this one around pretty seriously once it's in shape.

Tasty party dip or evil overlord from another dimension?

Finally, I’ve got the beginnings of a brand-new short story swirling around that's pretty dark and serious in tone, but I've also been wanting to write one that's a little on the lighter, goofier side… I haven't decided which way I want to go yet, but the words “Cthulhu” and “Guacamole” together in the same sentence may sway me.

Games: Downloaded Elefunk from the PS Store yesterday. It's a small-scale physics-based game that has an elephant on one side of the screen and a goal on the other. The player must take materials like platforms, girders, and ropes and create bridges or walkways for the pachyderm to cross over.

We've got some seriously bullshit physics going on here.

It's fairly comical and I like the idea a lot, though I take a minor issue with the fact that the developers give insufficient tutorials on bridge building and leave a lot of the game up to player trial and error in order to figure out how things work. It's not super-complicated so it wasn't an unforgivable sin, but a little more help at the beginning would have been appreciated.

Progress was steady and the physics of the game made sense most of the time, until I got absolutely stuck just a few levels from the end. I have to confess I’m quite confused at how some structures seem to fall apart after being heavily reinforced, while some bridges made out of just a few pieces appear unbreakable. There’s some questionable stuff going on here, the rope “support” physics being especially suspect.

I'm not planning on reviewing the game at the moment, but if I did I'd be leaning towards a six on the GameCritics scale (with five being perfectly average and NOT BAD). It's really more like a five, but since the game is only $5, that's worth an extra point simply for the fact that the developers were wise enough not to overcharge.

BTW, my 360 is still dead and I've become more convinced than ever that Microsoft customer service doesn't have the faintest idea what it's doing.

Since my unit keeled over a little while ago, I sent it in for repairs to the same Texas service center where it was resuscitated from the Red Ring of Death that struck during Christmas. Before I sent it in, I asked the rep whether the $99 service charge would be deducted from my account immediately, or when the unit was actually repaired. He stated over and over again that the money would not be taken out of my account until the console was shipped back to me. About 45 minutes after I hung up the phone, the money was taken.

After sending in the unit, I kept checking to find out where my console was in the repair process, and every time I checked, it was listed as “unit not received”. Since UPS confirmed delivery, I called in to find out WTF was going on and was shuttled back and forth between three different reps. The first said that is only updated once a week, which explained why the status listed was incorrect. The second told me to call back in two days for a return tracking number since the unit “has probably already been fixed and is on its way back to you”, and the third asked me what I thought of the Gears of War 2 demo to which I replied:

Why don't you tell me, since my console is broken? Why do you think I'm calling you?


Nervous chuckle.

...And somewhere in the middle lies Microsoft Customer Service.

Books: I finished reading Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm a few days ago, and I'm a little embarrassed to say that it was the first Stoker novel I've ever read.

It was a fascinating experience since the book was written somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 years ago, and so much of the language and thought process in the writing is radically different than the books that are being produced today. For someone who’s interested in words and writing like I am, this was intriguing stuff. However, that's not to say that intriguing necessarily equals good.

Amanda Donohoe's spiked strap-on from the film is nowhere in here. Gyp!!

It may be heresy of a sort, but quite honestly the book was terrible. The events of the story happen in Victorian/Edwardian England, and much of the tone and logic make absolutely no sense. I can only assume that things might have seemed more appropriate to a person who actually lived during that time period, but I scoffed and scratched my head through most of it -- things like narrowly avoiding being killed by a woman, yet being socially refined enough to finish afternoon tea with her before making an escape, or the main villain selling the evil lair that's been her home for thousands of years to the hero because she’s going to get married to someone with a bigger estate.

I don't mean to sound egotistical, but I would have loved to edit the hell out of it. There were so many plot threads that went nowhere and so much extraneous junk that could've been cut out, not to mention that the climax of the book was completely laughable; a resolution Rube Goldberg would have been proud of.

I'm assuming Dracula is better than this.

Moving on to something more recent, I started Happy Hour of the Damned by Mark Henry. I'm just a few chapters into it, but this story of a high-fashion zombie (yes, she eats flesh) and how she hypersnarks through her day is quite amusing so far. More to come on this later.

That's it for now, I need to poop the dog.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Top 10 now a Top 9... Details Below  

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Top 10 GameCube Games According To Me - Redux  

Games: If there's one thing gamers love, it’s top 10 lists.

...Unfortunately, my top 10 has now been reduced to a top 9 since Super Monkey Ball was disqualified. I didn't know that it had been included on some compilation discs after the initial GameCube release, thus negating its status as a 'Cube-only game.

(Thanks to Gamevet from GC for the heads-up.)

There were a few also-rans that I considered including to round out the group like Star Fox Adventures (smoothly competent, but derivative), Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (good concept, weak execution) or Cubivore (startlingly original, but too simplistic), but neither one was solid enough to justify calling them equal to the gems I've listed here. It's no secret that Nintendo systems of late have had a much smaller selection of software than the competition, and this is one case where that sad state of affairs is quite obvious.

Having tried any and everything that caught my eye and with no new games coming down the pipe, this is my definitive list of personal picks. I literally can't find a tenth game worthy of being added to the list, so 9 it is.

Just one quick note before I get started-- some of you may be wondering why a few great (or at least popular) titles aren’t on this list, so I'll say that there were two criteria for the selections:

1> I had to love the game.

2> Any game listed must be a GameCube exclusive.

There were a handful of other discs which could have made the list, but I'm not counting anything that received a multi-console release-- that’s another list for another day. These are titles that make their home on the GameCube, and the GameCube alone.

Without further ado, and in alphabetical order:

Animal Crossing: Athough it seems a little outdated in some ways today, getting a part-time job at Nook’s store and having nothing more pressing to do than search for bugs or cast a line out into the sea was pretty mindblowing at the time. Avoiding any conventional sense of progression and structure, getting dropped off in a small town and spending days actually caring about home décor was a fantastic trip outside the box.

Chibi Robo: Out of all the games on this list, this one is probably the most underappreciated title of the bunch. In spite of the sickeningly cute graphics, Chibi Robo was a challenging and sophisticated concept that combined open-world ideas with engaging quests on a much smaller scale than most developers aim for, and was quite successful for it. Confined to a single house and its accompanying backyard, this little silver robot proved that you don't need vast landscapes to have big adventures.

Lost Kingdoms: Another criminally unappreciated game, this quirky title blended real-time action with the ability to customize your character's abilities through use of collectible cards earned along the adventure. The ever-changing skillset provided by the cards kept the gameplay feeling minty fresh until the end, and the drive to explore and discover every corner of the world for new cards gave it legs. Although the sequel bungled things that the original got right, I'd love to see this series get another chance.

Luigi’s Mansion: Though it was one of the earliest titles, very few GameCube entries could match the level of polish and detail bestowed upon this one. Sucking up ghosts with an overpowered vacuum cleaner is a concept that's barely been exploited by game designers, and having a puzzle-filled mansion to do it in was icing on the cake. Giving Mario's second fiddle the spotlight was long overdue, so I'm glad that when finally given the chance it was so enjoyably playable.

Metroid Prime: A fair and accurate description of this game could be “making the impossible possible". Never in a million years would I have imagined something so intrinsically two-dimensional could translate so perfectly into three. Retaining the flavor and tone of the sci-fi exploration Metroid is made of was a true feather in Retro Studios’ cap, and brought Samus Aran to a new generation of players in flawless form.

Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door: Though it was basically just an iteration of what was achieved on the Nintendo 64, there's no disputing the fact that this game is a superb blend of action and RPG. The innovative combat engine kept players in the game instead of clicking through menus, and the adventure is full of humorous, clever moments.

Pikmin: Although there's been a new drive recently to bring RTS-style games to consoles, I think Miyamoto hit it on the nose the first time out with this one. Efficiently commanding a small army of flower people is effortless and natural, the streamlined resource management of “eat what you kill” cuts through staid genre conventions with a laser, and shrinking everything down to a near-microscopic scale was a charming stroke of brilliance.

The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures: Taking the multiplayer mode first seen in the GBA version of Link to the Past, this game brought a new singleplayer adventure using multiplayer mechanics (still playable in multi if you’ve got three friends) and a bizarrely engaging mix of new and old elements from the history of the series. Like the final game in my list below, Four Swords was a new (and successful) twist on the classic formula.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker: Yes, another Zelda. It's completely true that the endgame item-fetching foisted on players was a catastrophic mistake, but Wind Waker gets just about everything else right. The playful cel-shaded visual style was a breath of fresh air, and the complete redesign of the overworld was a great shakeup for the lauded series even though I wouldn't have minded spending a wee bit less time in the boat. Regardless, it's a perfect example of taking something old and making it new again.

So there you have it, my Top 9 GameCube list. Disagree with my choices? Have some suggestions of your own? Post a comment or send me an e-mail and let me know what you think.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Princess Debut  

Games: I don't usually do straight PR, but this game caught my eye for obvious reasons... It's not everyday you see a game featuring a female character trying to net a boyfriend through the art of ballroom seduction.

Tres intriguing, no?

The game won't be out until fall, but here are some shots and a little bit from the press release:
Princess Debut for the Nintendo DS--

"A rhythm and adventure game for girls.The game is coming to the Nintendo DS system this fall. Published anddeveloped by Natsume, Princess Debut offers gamers the chance to stepthrough a portal into a magical world where they become a princess.Girls will have to master their dance moves and woo one of the sixcharming princes in time for the big ball!"

"In the game, players find themselves in a fantasy world where they have 30 days to get ready for the big ball; they'll have to master their dance moves and win over one of the six handsome princes to be theirpartner. They'll meet and woo the princes through the game's large,branching storyline and exciting event system. Once the player convinces a prince to be their dancing partner, it's time to go out onthe dance floor! Players will use the Touch Screen to guide their character gracefully across the dance floor while matching their partner's rhythm. All of the dances in the game are taken from motion-captured professional dancers, so the game is just as impressive to watch as it is fun to play."

"Princess Debut offers four modes of play including Story, Ballroom,Practice, and Movie. With 20 outfits to find, 14 unique endings to experience, and 18 different kinds of music and dance styles to choose from (including Waltz, Latin dance, Tango, Ballroom, and much more),there's no shortage of things to see and do!"

I'm always up for something different, and I'll be damned if this isn't it.

Etrian II, Voyagers!, Moonlighting and Pain  

Games: I’m in the middle of Etrian Odyssey II: Heroes of Lagaard on the DS right now, and I’ve got to say that it’s one hell of a game. I’m in the process of playing it for an official review at GameCritics and I thought I’d be able to get it up in a pretty reasonable amount of time, but I’ve already sunk over 20 hours into it and I don’t think I’m even quite halfway. I may have to do one of my extremely rare ‘unfinished game reviews’ but in this particular case, I feel pretty comfortable with that if my deadlines start closing in.

The first few hours were heartlessly brutal, bringing a difficulty that I haven’t seen since the 16-bit days, but once my characters hit level 10 things sort of evened out and the constant smackdowns from random encounters started to ease up. I’m not going to talk a lot about it except to say that it’s an extremely fine piece of software and that although I can see how the appeal might be stronger with people who grew up in the old school, the designers of the game have got a pretty damned good handle on what they’re doing. It’s a total thumbs up at this point, and a very strong recommendation for anyone who can get into dungeon-crawl RPGs.

Easily one of my favorite games this year.

DVD: A couple of weeks ago the wife and I were cruising through the DVD aisle at a local store, and since I don’t do a lot of movie or TV watching these days, I was a little surprised to see how many old TV shows have become collections on DVD. One thing in particular caught my eye- the complete series of Voyagers!

This show ran for exactly one season in 1982 and for whatever reason remained embedded in my memory all this time despite the fact that I was only about six when it aired. Funny how the brain works, eh?

Anyway, Voyagers! was sort of a more kid-friendly precursor to Quantum Leap. Time traveler Phineas Bogg meets wiseacre kid Jeffrey Jones on accident, the two of them stumble through a rough introduction, and then they set out on a hopscotch trip through history to correct problems in the timeline. For example, in the second episode the gladiator Spartacus is bought by a wealthy Roman and taken away from the slaves he is meant to lead in an uprising. In the same episode, Phineas and Jeffrey come to the aid of Harriet Tubman in the deep South, parallels of slavery between the two separate times being drawn in between the adventure-flavored shenanigans.

It’s not a very heavy show and it doesn’t seem to really want to take itself too seriously (nobody has died in the first four episodes, language barriers are never a problem, and so on) but it’s got a cute tone and my son -- coincidentally also six and seeing the show for the first time -- has really taken to it.

One really neat thing about Voyagers! is that it gives me as a parent multiple opportunities to say so-and-so was a real person, or this/that event really happened. Of course, I preface it by saying that the show itself is fiction and only parts of it are fact, but it’s still a great leaping-off point and is straightforward enough for even young children to grasp. It's hyper-cheesy at times and definitely has that 80’s on-the-cheap vibe to it, but it’s got a good heart and has given us a few hours of TV that I can say felt like honest quality time.

Also, I picked up seasons one and two of 1985’s Moonlighting on DVD as well. Not going to say a lot on this one for the moment since we just started watching it tonight, but I will say that I was a huge fan of the show back when it was still on, and as I held the DVD in my hand I started to become a little afraid that it might not hold up.

It does.

The writing is sharp and snappy, and Bruce Willis’ character, detective David Addison, is absolutely on-point as he swaggers his way through Cybill Shepherd’s aloof model persona, Maddie Hayes. The point/counterpoint dynamic still clicks, and the mix of comedic and serious bits is superb.

Seriously, it’s as good as I remember. Maybe even better.

Misc: Last but certainly not least, the month-long summer visit with my son is nearly at an end and I’ve got to say that this part never gets any easier.

It’s been a fantastic time, and I’ve honestly loved every minute of it. My little man is growing up into a little man and he’s becoming more of a unique individual with his own thoughts and feelings every time I see him. It’s a hoary cliché, but this is one of those instances when I genuinely wish this time would never end.

Besides the fact that my son is a fantastic kid, I’m thankful every day that my wife (the most wonderful lady on the planet) and he get along famously… there is genuine affection between the two of them, and I thank my lucky stars every night for it. I’ve had friends who’ve come from dysfunctional step relationships and I’ve seen firsthand the fallout that can occur, but in this particular case I can say that the three of us feel like a real family. Couldn’t ask for much more than that.

Still, as good as spending time with him is, the clock counting down the remaining days and hours he’s got left with us never really vanishes from my mind -- and there’s so little time left on the clock right now that it’s really all any of us are thinking about.

Being on the losing side of a custody battle is a horrible, painful situation and not something I’d wish on anyone (except one particular person I can think of...) It may not count for much, but to any of you readers who are in the position of being ‘the parent that isn’t there’, you can rest assured that there’s at least one other person out there that feels your pain.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One of those nights...  

Do you ever have one of those nights where you get set up in front of the computer and mean to get some things done, and then the next time you look up, it’s two hours later and the only thing you've accomplished is replying to a few of your friends’ e-mails and reading some random articles?

I do.

[insert witty, thought-provoking blog post here]

Monday, July 7, 2008

No wonder McDonald's is king.  

Games: So is it true that most gamers only want better graphics and more-of-the-same gameplay? Many industry heads think so, and evidently there's a pretty good number of gamers out there who are pretty eager to agree with them.

Who said the B&B Corps background stories were laughable trash? Who?!?

I recently reviewed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for PS3 over at GameCritics, and while some comments were pretty encouraging, there were more than enough 'fans' of the game calling me a heretic and a hater to give me pause. Not because I felt like I went wrong with my review, but because the basic arguments seem to be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" (even though I think a good case can be made that things are broken) and that anyone who was bored or less than entertained by the ludicrously long and hideously written cutscenes (like moi) must "not get" the story and must not be "a fan."

Does being "a fan" mean that you eat up whatever it is a developer serves up without ever looking to see what it is you're eating, and never even taking a whiff to check if it's gone sour?

Since when did questioning and critiquing start to equate hating something?

Way better than MGS4.

It's not like any of this (especially in regard to game reviews) is news to me, I'm just getting to the point at which I'm immensely tired and weary of people who wear their blinders proudly and cinch them tighter when someone threatens to give them a peek of what lies jst a few degrees outside their field of vision.

Did I give MGS4 a low score and call it out for being less than it could have been? Absolutely. Does this mean I'm not a "fan" or that I somehow don't "get" what Hideo Kojima's all about?

Way better than MGS4.

I mean, according to these folks... the fact that I've met Kojima twice, the fact that I've played through (and loved) every installment of the Metal Gear series until 4, the fact that Zone of the Enders 2 is one of my top PS2 games and that Snatcher is my favorite game of all time, and the fact that I frequently name-check Kojima as one of the boldest, most creative and brilliant auteurs in gaming history don't seem to count for anything.

... So I'm not a fan, I don't get it, and I'm a bad, bad person for daring to say anything negative about a particular piece of work that wasn't up to snuff.

Or maybe some people just can't handle the truth.

It's more of the same, it was poorly written, and it has boffo graphics. Some reviewers may be okay giving out 9's and 10's for this, but not me. I know Kojima's capable of much, more more than we saw in MGS4, and as much as I admire the man and his work, I'm not afraid to say so.

Way, way, way better than MGS4.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Kids' games that DON'T suck.  

Games: So a few days ago I posted a rant about the sorry state of kids’ games, and afterwards I was bound and determined to find something that my son and I could play together.

Some people wrote in and told me that I should go back to some of the classics, and that's not really bad advice. However, I think the fact is that some of those ‘classics’ don't hold up as well as we think they do. I mean, let's get real… I can remember being driven batshit crazy by the absurd difficulty curves and just plain bizarre choices older games made. The state of design has come a long way since the NES, and I had a hard time trying to decide what titles would swim with my son, and which would sink. However, I think a lot of the same spirit found in the classics can be found in many of the download-only titles available from the various online services.

Totally abandoning retail, I gave the new WiiWare offerings another once-over since my son's been through most of the games on Xbox Live Arcade (and loved them), and I came up with two real winners.

Critter Round-Up from Konami is about as low-rent and simple as can be, but my son took to it immediately once I went through a couple levels and showed him the ropes.

Basically, the player controls a small character that lays a fence behind him. The object of the game is to separate the different kinds of animals running freely in each level. For example, there might be some beavers milling around with deer, so you'd have to wait until there was enough space to sneak through, lay the fence, and then pen them each up away from the other. The challenge comes from the fact that the character trips and falls when he touches an animal, and there are also some predator animals which will chase him. Other than that, it's about as straightforward as it sounds, and in this case that's a good thing. The graphics could use some work, but there’s a neat sort of 80’s arcade vibe going on here… I wouldn't be surprised if it was inspired by some forgotten quarter-muncher. This one is recommended for kids.

Toki Tori, also on WiiWare, is a fantastic little puzzler very much like the games that were found on the NES/SNES way back in the day. Incidentally, it seems that this same game was released on the Game Boy Color in 2001, but I don't remember ever seeing it before.

Anyway, in this game the player controls a squat little yellow bird tasked with freeing his still-in-the-shell brethren from 2D platformy puzzle levels. The catch is that he can’t jump, and the different abilities available to him are extremely limited and given in specific quantities on a level-by-level basis. For example, in one stage the bird will have five uses of a teleporter and two shots of an ice gun. In another, he'll have two ghost traps and three bridges, and so on. There's a lot of trial-and-error going on here, but so far the stages are quite short and a healthy dose of logic will usually solve any mysteries.

Although the difficulty and required level of puzzle-solving ability ramp up pretty quickly, the reason Toki Tori is a success is because a second player (Dad, in this case) can use an additional Wiimote to direct a cursor on screen to give hints and direction to the first player (son).

The same sort of setup was recently seen in Super Mario Galaxy (and a few earlier titles, IIRC) and after these two experiences, I'm convinced that any game with a hope of appealing to younger children should absolutely include this feature standard.

It definitely requires a lot more participation from parents since they have to be sitting next to their child and actively involved in the gameplay, but that's totally all right with me since I don't see games as an electronic babysitter for young ones. This “magic cursor” is the perfect way to involve both parent and child in the same activity, leading to natural cooperation and teamwork. What could be better? This one is recommended for kids and grown-ups... or just grown-ups.

Kudos to both Konami and Two Tribes for some great kid-friendly titles. I would never have imagined it, but based on my experiences with these games and previous ones on Live, it seems like download is a great way to go for parents right now.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Rise From Your Grave... Now get BACK IN!!  

Microsoft's done it to me again.

I got hit with the Red Rings of Death and went through the whole repair process, getting knocked out of action for about a month.

Truth be told, I'm really a fan of the 360's games and of how well the Live service is integrated, so I wasn't too upset even though I had every right to be. The experience up until that point was just that good, really.

My opinion is starting to change.

Today while playing Wik, the graphics on the screen became sort of lined and fuzzy, so I assumed it was the TV. I shut it off and turned it back on, with no difference.

::cue ominous music::

I shut down the 360 and restarted it, and what I got was an E 74 Error message, whatever the hell that is. Shut down, restarted, no change.

I called in to Microsoft and get a horrific customer service rep who called me Brad, Chad, Ted, and Bob in rotation. He explained in semi-intelligible english that since this was not a RROD, it was not covered under Microsoft's recently-extended warranty and it would be $99 to fix. I protested, saying that I had *just* had the unit repaired, but to no avail.

My 360 is now unhooked, out of my game cabinet, and waiting to be shipped off to Texas (or parts unkown) for repairs.

I am not happy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Wik: The Obsession  

Anyone that knows me knows that I rarely play a game twice. If it's got a story mode (and I love them that do) regardless of how much I enjoyed it, chances are that it’ll never enter my console again once the credits roll. A large part of the fun I get from games is the discovery of what's next, and once I already know, it just doesn't have the same thrill.

Once in a blue moon I'll come across something that just clicks with me, and I'll fall completely in love with it. It happens so rarely that I could justifiably say it never happens, and basically be correct. However, since one should never say never, I will admit that there have been a select few that charmed me enough to come back for a second, or third round.

The latest to be added to my ‘OMG, I actually want to play this again’ pile?

Wik: the Fable of Souls, by Reflexive.

It started life as a PC game, but I came across it as one of the earliest downloads launched for the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade. At the time there were only a handful of titles available, but I have a feeling I would have given it a shot regardless-- There's just something completely magical about this game for me.

There's no way you can tell what's going on in this shot, but trust me -- it's fun.

I reviewed it back in June 2006 for GameCritics, gave it an 8, and had this to say about it:

Wik: Fable of Souls is a crazy little project; it's got the music of Elfman, the aesthetics of Oddworld and the single-screen mechanics of an old-old-school platformer. The game's star, Wik, resembles nothing so much as a mix between a tropical tree frog and a Goth rocker.

Along with…

It's weird, but familiar in all the right ways. I was addicted, but it did drive me batty. It feels like a forgotten classic, but it's running on the newest hardware… Wik: the Fable of Souls is a very unusual proposition, but one that I suggest 360 owners accept.

The full review is here if you want it, but the point I'm trying to make is that the game is fantastic. The art, the animation, the physics, the gameplay… everything. Having returned to it after two years, my appreciation for it has only grown and it's even become something of an obsession. I never got all the achievements the first time around, and I didn't complete the game with 100% of the collectibles -- both things I’m currently in the middle of rectifying.

Yes, you read that right. It's not a typo: not only am I playing it again, I'm playing it again and going for total completion.

I think I can say I've done that for less than a dozen games over the length of my entire career, but Wik holds a special place in my gaming heart and I'm enjoying it every bit as much now as I did the first time around.

If you haven't tried it, take my advice and get it straight from the source here, or at the very least give the demo on Live a shot. It may not be your cup of tea, but if you're reading this blog... then the chances are that it probably is.

How can you not love this face?!?