Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I have never been a huge fan of the 3D versions of the Grand Theft Auto series. I am aware they are good games, and I even own the A-O rated (and properly stickered) version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. My issue has been the series' insistence in needlessly driving plot through stereotypes and locking parts of the city up so hard you can't so much as fart in that direction without death. Sometimes I just want to play the game and mess around to blow off steam, plain and simple. It just hasn't been satisfying (or possible) in the last few games. Am I buying Grand Theft Auto IV? No, but I am aware it's rating very well and I can respect it for that. Yes, Grand Theft Auto IV is a good game.

While I've not felt a crazy interest in the game, I am keeping tabs on it to see if perhaps some of my gripes were addressed in this new version or if it would contain some new thread to draw me in. Cargo has written a very effective summary of the things I wanted to know as his first impressions. Perhaps you may find it answers some of your burning questions.

I haz it. Played a few hours last night!

Preliminary thoughts: It's a GTA game. It's not the second coming of Jesus and Mohammed Ali rolled into one. If you didn't like the 3-series games you're probably not going to suddenly like this one. The graphics are better, the city is more detailed, and it feels less cartoony than SA and Vice. Liberty City is grimier and dirtier than NYC, it's like a hybrid of 1970s NY and the current era stylistically.

First thing I did was go to Liberty City's DUMBO analogue (my neighborhood) and check out the parallels. Our apartment isn't in it, but the one across the street from us is, as is the Clock Tower building and Brooklyn Bridge Park with the curving amphitheater thing at the beach front. The bridges are spot-on. Various intersections and streets are duplicated with uncanny accuracy. But the whole thing is compressed together so 'interesting' streets are next to one another, there isn't a lot of filler of samey-looking streets. So the bridge is next to Coney Island, etc. The result captures the essence of the city without the immense size, much like the previous GTA games. After tootling around for awhile it only feels a little bigger than the GTA3 liberty city, even though I know it's MUCH bigger. But it looks spectacular - the rain on the streets looks like rainy streets with blurred headlights from oncoming traffic coming towards you.. it is verging on photoreal in spots. Gorgeous. And the physics engine is outstanding - people fall and go sprawling in painful-looking ways.

Much has been said about the new combat and driving. Long story short it's less arcadey and the cars are harder to control. That is going to piss a lot of veteran players off until they get used to the new system. A shitbox old car will handle accordingly, and sports cars are twitchy and hard to steer. My favorite car so far is the Feltzer, which was the Mercedes-style convertible in SA and is more like a SLK Mercedes now. It's pretty sweet. Combat is not that different from the old one, you still auto target but can free aim if you want. Hand to hand reminds me a little of Bully or Max Payne but it's still mostly button mashing - I avoid hand to hand anyways and prefer to do my work at long range. Shooting from the drivers seat of a car is a loong overdue improvement.

I haven't unlocked much beyond the first few missions, although they've integrated the 'social' missions more into the main stream of the game, so dating girls and even going to shoot pool with your friends can unlock various features. They reduced the customization of Niko and streamlined some of the side missions - doesn't seem to be any taxi or firetruck missions, the hidden packages (200 pigeons to shoot) don't have incremental rewards (just a spawning helicopter in one of your bases apparently, when you get all 200) and as has been noted, no bicycles, aircraft, jetpacks etc.

Uh, what else. I took my car through the car wash and of course it immediately started raining afterwards. Lol. The soundtrack is varied, the radio stations are goofy as ever, and they really put in a lot of gratuitous profanity. Niko Bellic, your character, has a more interesting personality than at first appears, and the whole game feels like less of a cartoon and more of, say, a rather dark graphic novel with enough of the trademark GTA satirical tone to keep it from getting too heavy.

I like it a lot so far, and am looking forward to playing it all the way through, but the hype around it is getting deafening. Again, it's a GTA game. An improvement over the 3-series, but not a quantum jump.

I think I may purchase a used copy when I'm done playing some other games on my platter.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Do you Snort at the Wii Wheel?

Back when Nintendo introduced Mario Kart Wii and the Wii Wheel to the public I was interested in the game, but not so much in the cheesy new shell for the Wiimote. How many of these lameass shells have I seen for the Wii and associated controllers? Even the Wii Zapper looked like it was poorly thought out with the cords and sliding doors involved. It just seemed like Nintendo had really gotten the whole Wiimote down, but everything else after detracted from the experience. Third party addons were just cheesy shells that often did nothing to enhance gameplay. So is anyone ever going to get it right?

After picking up Mario Kart Wii at midnight last night, I've been taken from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other. The Wii Wheel is indeed just a plastic shell for the Wiimote, but the very nature of its design and the meticulous programming on the game software makes for a completely new way to play - the way Nintendo has been trying to push for a while. The fact is holding the Wiimote sideways makes you feel like you're holding a TV remote and you won't drive with the finesse of a real driver - the Wii Wheel drives this finesse. No, I'm not kidding, the Wii Wheel creates a brand new, more fun experience that I've been begging for a while. It takes the tacked-on feel of Wii controls and integrates them as tightly as possible. And it feels natural. The game feels as responsive as ye olde joysticks of yore and you honestly don't look like as big an idiot as you think playing with this new method. In other words - the Wii Wheel is an essential part of the new Mario Kart.

Personally, I'm kicking myself for only taking the wheel in the game package. I hope I can find some today before this peripheral's sales take off like mad and you'll have an easier time finding the Wii itself. I was a hard, hard skeptic and now I've been made a believer. If you've doubted as hard as I have when it comes to Wiimote accessories, try the Wii Wheel once and you'll be made a believer.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Xbox Live Arcade Desires: Munchers Live!

The Xbox Live Arcade service has proven to be a great platform for revitalizing older PC and console titles and delivering them to a newer audience - however there are some games missing that may prove to be excellent additions to the service. Consider this....

Munchers Live!
Coming from the same vein of thought as my previous post on Oregon Trail Live!, Muchers Live! is a revival of two games, Word Munchers and Number Muchers, both of which common among the twentysomethings of the US from their school days. The sister titles revolved around the same general premise - eat the appropriate vowel or number as dictated by the information at the top of each screen. Starting slow, the pace and answer criteria would pick up in difficulty, becoming outright frantic as players struggled to much the correct answer before it was changed by the bad guys. Eat an incorrect answer or become a Troggle's dinner and lose a life. (Troggles are the bad guys, by the way.) Do well and get rewarded with a great moment in muncher history - a small silly clip showing the good guy (Muncher) trouncing the Troggles in/at a historic place/time. Between all of this, players learn their vowels, consonsants, prime factors, multiples, and so forth.

Just as with Oregon Trail Live!, a similar case can be made for re-relasing this title. Muchers suits the family demographic Microsoft is desparate to steal from Nintendo, by cleverly educating players while injecting a good dose of fun to cover up the "not-so-awesome" parts. Again, the title is flexible in the sense mom and dad can take part in the fun while the child can still be the star. And hey, whose mom and dad couldn't use a brushing up on their math and English?

Similar to Oregon Trail Live, the development and porting cycle for the nature of this title would be relatively short when compared to other games. Such a relatively smaller cost screams for a publisher to re-release and go through the process associated with it. Heck, a neat Live! enabled multiplayer mode could be thrown into the game where one set of players play as the Troggles and the others as Munchers. Imagine a four on four match inside an expanded grid with four Munchers moving frantically to eat numbers, while the speedy-yet-speed-controlled Troggles eat good answers and leave behind incorrect ones. The screams echo in my head already..."You ate my two! YOU ATE MY TWO!" The fun begs to be had.

So where is it?
Unfortunately Muchers Live! faces the same issues as Oregon Trail Live. Both original games were developed by MECC in the late 1980s/early 1990s and rights have since been acquired by The Learning Company, who has reluctant to license their properties to consoles. Speculation frequently concludes this could be because folk familiar with the game would not expect a console version to perform as well as the PC versions they are familiar with.

As with all titles that wind up in the Xbox Live Arcade Desires series, nearly the biggest hurdle is convincing the powers necessary a market exists for this title. Microsoft is tightening the requirements for the XNA platform, so its likely the capital to license and port the game will need to be fronted by a larger publisher, and even then the person spearheading the project needs to have some pull in the industry. It is not impossible, it's just very unlikely.

If someone is out there and reading with power, hear my plea and make this happen. It's an absurdly simple, yet low cost game that could draw some pretty cash into your coffers. And if, for some reason, it doesn't - hey, you didn't make Superman 64.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hey Sony, Where's my PSP Battery?

I feel led on by Sony. Why? Back in 2004 a lot of gaming media focus was centered on the PSP launch and the questionable battery life - a problem which plagues the system to this day. GamesIndustry ran a piece stating Sony's intent was to create a battery that would last much longer than the current "four to six hour" run time:

The SCE boss was adamant, however, that the battery life problem would be solved in future - telling the interviewer that "in the future, we'd like a single charge to last for a flight between Narita [Tokyo] and New York" - a fourteen hour trip.

The article states he "stopped short" of declaring a bigger batter would definitely come out, but the argument the solution may solely lie with software efficiently is flimsy. Software efficiency is very important to the PSP, but it should not be the sole basis for battery life solutions - having a decent capacity battery is just as critical. Taking it further, today's PSP games - which are far more efficient than older titles - still do not give the system more than an average of 45 minutes more battery life than the last generation, based on my experience. It's nothing I'm writing home about.

So where's my super battery? The argument of the DS's battery life eclipsing the PSP's still stands four years later and all Sony has done is release a slightly bigger battery pack that adds 45 minutes to an hour to the system's overall life at a pretty cost. The new PSP 2001/Slim model is 30% more efficient, but a smaller battery is packaged with it, keeping overall life the same as the previous generation. Even if you have no aesthetic taste whatsoever and stick an older generation PSP battery into it, the overall life increase is minimal. Sony's argument for software efficiency is further negated with the newest versions of PSP firmware, which allow developers to run the system at a full 333 MHz, instead of the long standing lock at 233MHz, initially implemented for battery life purposes. Has Sony just given up caring about battery life? I don't know, but all the flashy, Skype-laden, fancy, eye-dazzling technology is moot if I can't even appreciate it before the screen goes dark.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Are you an American Gamer?

The gaming world has three different types of games.

Japanese: The first widely accepted popular game type, the Japanese game, is one that most people are familiar with. Frequently, these games tend to have more in-depth plot and cerebral requirements than games of other regions. One can argue that these types of games are the "weird" games that one's older sister writes off as being "nerdy" when speaking about them to their friends. Japanese games tend to also follow the tendency of Japanese culture to be more artistic or have unusual, fantastic premises either based on very realistic but tweaked scenarios, or complete fantasy adventures a la Final Fantasy. Often games are developed with a more international view but with a Japanese twist (and sometimes twisted to the point where localization for other markets is deemed impossible).

American: American games emerged during the era of the Xbox (mostly because there was no American console manufacturer prior). These games tend to be more rooted in real life than others. An American game's plot or premise will tend to exist on a platform based on the real world, where a Japanese game player to lends himself more often to believing the plot exists in an alternate/parallel universe. American games also tend to involve less strategy (compared to popular titles such as Final Fantasy) and be based on less fantastic types of action, such as street racing or first person shooters. Often times, less advance planning is mentally required when playing an American console game.

Euro: European games tend to be a melding of American and Japanese games, despite gamers in this territory often being given delayed releases or heavily altered titles. European games tend to be artistic and less localized than American titles. Many European titles will also contain historic references or multicultural references. Games from this region are relatively new and their unique flavor is still in the works but all signs point to an emphasis on art.

So why do these disparities exist? Several reasons can be hypothesized, however I will only list a few.

The first reason for different game types lies in culture. While perhaps seeming shallow at face value, this is the most complex reason for the difference in games. Sure, Japan and the US have different cultural interests - the Japanese tend to be more open than Americans for the most part - but certainly things often overlooked matter. Schooling Japan is different than American, and one can even go out and argue while Americans aren't "stupid", the Japanese certainly demand much higher standards in education than have been established in the US. This obviously can play into a population's interest in software demands, interactivity, and contributed innovation to any industry. Likewise, the Japanese have established a national directive stating creativity should be a primary concern of the country to drive the economy, where the American economy has historically been on top and national cultural priorities have been placed on other things, such as personal recreation - like street racing and sports, for instance.

Continuing this reason into the next we come to geography and impact on ethnocentrism. Japan is a small country and with limited natural resources the country has connected to the international community and gained the associated perspective. The US has a significant amount of natural resources and space, and as mentioned previously, has been able to place primary cultural interests in more recreational items. Simply put, a lot of the American public has never had a reason to be interested in the cultures and experiences of other countries when a strong economy has allowed individual members of the population to pursue their own personal interests exclusively. As a result, significant localization and tweaking is often executed on a Japanese game before a US release. Very often many games will not be released at all, such as the case with Super Mario Bros 2 or several of the Final Fantasy titles back in the 1990s, due the expectation the American culture would not accept the title or franchise. The American public's intense interest in personal interests has also spawned a library of software based around these activities, many of which are often found only in the American culture due to lack of need for international connections. Couple this with the tendency for American games to be rooted in real life along with self-absorbed activities and you have a recipe for poor sales in other regions. Think Xbox 360 in Japan.

The last major reason I will throw out for thought is technology. The Japanese have historically been associated as the wizards of technology and have made a killing in the market as a result. In the late 1980s and 1990s American games could not sustain themselves against Japanese titles, due to American titles being less engaging than their counterparts in terms of less exquisite graphics and more clumsy understanding of gameplay technology. A Final Fantasy title was simply more impressive, and as a result immersive, when compared to other titles. In fact, the first recognizably "American" title, despite being developed in the UK, was Goldeneye 007. By comparison, five Mario titles had emerged on the market at the time, praised for pushing technology and gameplay experiences, with the most recent being Super Mario 64 and its solid grasp of 3D.

My intent in this piece is not to say Americans are selfish or the Japanese are picky - this is hardly the case. Certainly there are gamers that can appreciate titles from anywhere and plenty of crossover does occur between tastes and titles on any market. I myself, find that I have very Japanese tastes, mostly due to my upbringing and historical experiences but I definitely enjoy a good game of Burnout Paradise and Portal when I get the chance. Cross-regional tastes are emerging, accelerated by consoles like the Wii, which offers both experiences. Here's to hoping each region gets to enjoy other regions' contributions to the vast game library of the world. There are some real gems out there.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Xbox Live Arcade Desires: Chu Chu Rocket! Live

The Xbox Live Arcade service has proven to be a great platform for revitalizing older PC and console titles and delivering them to a newer audience - however there are some games missing that may prove to be excellent additions to the service. Consider this....

Chu Chu Rocket! Live
Sega really has a hard time releasing their games. The Xbox 360 has little Japanese penetration, the PS3's price is still forcing slower-than-desired console sales, the PS2 has little online connectivity or unique style, Sonic has crapped all over the house, and cult-classic titles sell whimsically in the US. Seems like the Wii, with it's global popularity and unique control scheme to boot is a logical choice, no? This is very true for larger titles like Samba De Amigo and Space Channel 5. One would believe there is little case then, for Sega to release much on the 360. Believe it or not, a Chu Chu release for the 360 is probably one of Sega's best ways to get their foot in the door.

The Xbox Live Arcade service's games are typically smaller, more "compact" titles that are simple, yet engrossing. In essence, most games on the service play like a true arcade game - short 3 minute games that are fun but quick to end. Chu Chu Rocket! is very much like this - a truly fun but simple and short puzzler with some whacky multiplayer on the side. Sega doesn't need 500 reasons to release this - there's one simple reason: it would simply fit in perfectly with offerings currently available. Seem weak? Those same offerings are selling like hotcakes according to official Microsoft figures, which peg downloads at 25,000,000 and counting. On the technical side the game's base code is small and compact, likely easily placed onto an Xbox Memory Unit, and the GBA port from years past also means the code base has likely been placed onto a universal platform, which makes for easy porting.

The Xbox platform also lends itself to some enhancements to Chu Chu that would be the next logical steps for the puzzler. The mayhem of multiplayer simply screams to be taken online and could easily be integrated into the game without skipping a beat. Different board types and configurations could also be stepped up to create new ways of directing the rodents to their ships. Kapu Kapus could be expanded into a variety of different kinds with different traits, such as speed, ability to jump, explode, etc. Take these gameplay changes, combine them with the multiplayer level editor and then throw in the seamless Xbox Live experience and you've got a seriously killer package.

Where is it?
Chu Chu Rocket! Live is a simple concept but is tied down under a 400 pound gorilla named...Sega. While it certainly seems certain parts of the company have managed to pull their head out of their ass and get some decent titles into the pipe (including a quiet XBLA release of Golden Axe), there are still powers that be in the company that haven't figured out any sort of road map for the company. Sega still exhibits an extremely disjointed mentality where the left hand does not know what the right one is up to. Unfortunately fixing this problem likely entails literally breaking the company down to its individual parts and forcefully extracting some deeply penetrated people that have somehow managed to screw things up for ten years without anyone figuring out who they are. Oh well, at least we can dream...

Friday, April 11, 2008

Me and my PSP

The PSP and I have had a rocky relationship over the years. I was right there in line at launch day and got mine, but I was trading it back in and repenting for getting rid of my DS within a month. It just seemed all the cool demos and promises weren't there when Sony had promised me they would. Software also wasn't that great. A few months later I again purchased a PSP in the vain hopes something better had come along - but nothing doing. Again it went back into the trade bin. Nearly two years later and I'm again faced with a PSP decision, mostly on the grounds of the upcoming Kingdom Hearts game and all the great mods the system supports. So today I'm going to head down to Best Buy and check out the possibilities for my purchase. Patapon certainly looks interesting, as does Crisis Core, but I'm likely to keep it simple for now and use the PSP more as a media device until my money works out more in favor of PSP software. I just worry I may end up regretting my purchase...again. My DS took a fat crap on the R button and I'm not forking $90 to Nintendo for a new unit, so I think now may be the time to check out the smaller PSP-shaped gorilla.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Xbox Live Arcade Desires: Oregon Trail

The Xbox Live Arcade service has proven to be a great platform for revitalizing older PC and console titles and delivering them to a newer audience - however there are some games missing that may prove to be excellent additions to the service. Consider this....

Oregon Trail Live
If you used a computer in the early to late/mid 1990s you probably have stumbled across this gem in any of its iterations. Fans of the series often recall blocky DOS graphics, the awkward but engrossing hunting experience with little square bullets, dying of dysentery, and having their hopes of winning the game dashed on a rock in the Dalles. Of course, buried in this fun was a learning experience in managing money, time, health, and also some historical facts brought to you in conjunction with MIDI sound.

Beyond the nostalgia factor and fan service, a serious case can be argued for re-releasing this game. Microsoft has been trying very hard to push the 360 as a more family friendly console and a game long respected for its educational value being placed on the console would do a lot to further this image. This is likely one of the few games that can carry a wide appeal to both younger gamers and mom and dad. The cost of porting the game is relatively low compared to writing a new engine for a game and development would fall into a relatively short cycle.

Speaking of development, should the game be released, I propose it be done in two flavors - classic and enhanced. Classic would retain the older DOS graphics (modified to be HD compatible) and gameplay, tweaked only to fit the Xbox controller layout. Enhanced would contain the graphical improvements of the newer editions of Oregon Trail and updated sound. An optional "LiveConnect" mode could also be made available for both modes, where the game would communicate with the Live servers to note where party members died or notable events occurred. Other gamers would be able to see randomly selected tombstones and such as they take their party along the trail to Oregon. Gamerscore could also have a hayday with some serious awards, such as completing the trail, and some fun awards like getting cholera.

So Where Is It?
There are some definite hurdles in making this release happen. The largest is licensing the game from The Learning Company, owners of the franchise after MECC sold the rights. Traditionally TLC-owned properties do not perform well in terms of sales on consoles, such as the case of the GameCube's Carmen Sandiego and the Secret of the Stolen Drums. The populace has come to expect some titles on a PC and in turn believe a console version may be less fun.

The other large hurdle preventing Oregon Trail Live is convincing a developer there is a market out there. Every game will sell a handful of titles but developers want million seller titles to make their profits. Unless your Atlus, finding a developer can be a hard sell on this point alone. Or has no one realized the gold that exists in this game? It's conceivable someone could attempt a release with the XNA platform, but that world has plenty of snarls that need to be worked out first, not to mention an indie developer likely cannot pony up a license fee to TLC.

If someone out there stumbles upon my idea, hear my plea. I'm sure two other people besides myself would like to relive the glory days of buying oxen and learning about Soda Springs again. Bring us Oregon Trail Live! Here are my thanks in advance.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Dollar Hits Record Low Against Hylian Rupee

Maxim has reported the Dollar hit a record low against the Hylian Rupee and Power Ring during trading today. First Nintendo has an excess of Wii in Europe and now I can't buy my Lon Lon Milk!

Today's exchange figures can be found by clicking here ---> here.