Monday, February 25, 2008

Microsoft Kills HD-DVD for XBox 360

Little surprise here, given that the next-generation media war has already been declared over. But I caught this weekend post from the good folks at GameLife, one of the essential daily reads for videogame freaks. I'm really not interested in reprinting the day-to-days, but this does mark an interesting turn of events for the current console generation. Let's check the scorecards.

By any way you stretch it, Sony has had a terrible time with Playstation 3. They've struggled to a degree that they never have before, not unless you count the days of their ill-fated SNES CD drive. That damned box was just so outrageously expensive, the development costs were out of control, third-party studios were giving stronger consideration to XBox 360 as the platform of choice, and then out of the blue comes Nintendo with its Wii console, the Never-Ending Fad.

Then we count Sony's financial troubles, mostly dealing with the risks of betting so much on the Blu-Ray standard. Only a year ago, analysts were drawing the knives, waiting for the mighty tech company to get its comeuppance. I was pretty sure they were driving off a cliff.

Well, it's time for me to admit my mistakes. I was wrong. Sony's gamble is going to pay off handsomely. Heck, given the long-term prospects, Blu-Ray will become a feather in their cap. At least, until Microsoft can successfully push for digital downloads.

As for me, I'm firmly in the digital downloading camp. I think that's the future of the movies. It's the damn present. It's now. There's no real excuse for holding back, aside from the Hollywood studios. They are afraid, rightfully so, I might add, that what happened to the music industry is about to happen to them. Imagine a video iPod that can store 5,000 full-length feature movies. DVD-quality, too. It's inevitable.

Microsoft has made this their real battleground against Sony, and it's a more long-term war. Expect to see PS4 and XBox 720 before then.

For now, that means that Sony, once again, has a games console with a top-line DVD player dirt cheap. It's suddenly 2000 all over again. No wonder there are rumors of Dreamcast coming back. You jerks would probably snub the Greatest Games Console Ever yet again, just for kicks. Forget it. My heart can't take that kind of pain...I'm too old.

So where does that leave this console generation? The wild card, as always, is Nintendo. Most of the Wii games are hideous, low-grade schlock, yes, but the top 10% includes Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, and Super Smash Brothers. Mario Kart and Animal Crossing are within, folks, at this rate, I don't think we'll ever see this baby sitting on store shelves. The senior citizens and soccer moms are grabbing right from the truck. The last time that happened, it was the 1984 Cabbage Patch Doll craze, and it turned into a bad Arnold Schwartzeneggar movie. Nintendo Wii ain't going anywhere.

The 360? The PS3? Far more parity down the road. Sony should catch up in due course. There's still enough brand-name loyalty, even though it's a pretty tasteless brand. What does 360 do in the next three years? That's a very good question. Microsoft pretty much controls its own destiny now.

So everybody wins. Except the gamers, of course, because they've got to pay for all this stuff. Better pray for some very forgiving girlfriends in the coming years.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Frank Luntz Love Machine

This guy is priceless. What is it with Republicans obsessing with sex, anyway? Didn't that party use to have, you know, real adults?

Digby Said - Looking For a Reason

I couldn't put it any better myself. What we are seeing is merely the common practice of switching enemies during the Two Minutes Hate. We are at war with McCain, we have always been at war with Liberals." This will, of course, switch back to, "We have always been at war with McCain" after he loses the November election...and loses badly, I might add.

The king is dead. Long live the king.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

New Computer

Finally got the new computer this weekend. I was hoping to only replace the motherboard and cpu, but it seems that the other parts were too old (or so I was told). So I basically had to get a new computer from scratch. Ouch. Guess it's back to ramen noodles for me for the next two weeks. What the heck happened? I was saving money at one point....

Anyway, I'm back in business and in the process of moving everything from the old hard drive to the new one. Then it's off to work on Videogames of the Damned - The Book. Which is really just all these crummy little blog posts and all those old game reviews from my website. Ah, well. It'll still rock.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Videogame Classics - Blue Lightning

Blue Lightning
Epyx for Atari
Atari Lynx
Blue Lightning was most likely the signature game for the Atari Lynx. It certainly was the most eager standout from the early launch titles, the one guaranteed hit to boast to your Gameboy friends. If you were the one kid on your block with a Lynx instead of a Gameboy, this was your ace in the hole. Yeah, yeah, Tetris is the greatest thing ever, my friend, but have you checked out...this?

Watch the eyes widen and the jaws drop. For a short time, 1989, 1990, this was the must-see thing for videogame fans.

It's amazing to me how advanced the handhelds have finally become in this last generation cycle. It's easy to take your DS or Playstation Portable for granted. They're really just slimmed versions of the console games we've been playing for years now, so they're just treated as a given. It's hard to really impress someone, really WOW them, with the portables anymore. I don't know if it can even be done this late in the game. Fortunately, we've broadened as gamers enough to be cool with it all.

But it was a different game when Gameboy first appeared in '89. I know, this is my standard Atari Lynx rap, but it's an important message to imprint. At that time, a color handheld was something big. A color handheld that actually rivaled the big consoles was really big. The idea was almost scandalous.

There really wasn't any reason to care about Atari by the end of the '80s. They were the famous casualties of the game crash of '83 or '84, depending on which computer geek you talk to. Nintendo had mopped the floor with them with the NES, and Mario ushered in the next generation of games. So if you were Atari, you really had to have something super-cool in order to get our attention. The Lynx was it.

As anyone familiar with the old story goes, the Lynx was actually designed by Epyx, one of the most beloved computer game studios of the time. We had little love for Atari, but Epyx was a different story. We were all die-hard fans. Impossible Mission. Winter Games. Summer Games. Temple of Apshai. Jumpman. Yadda, yadda. An Epyx handheld that's essentially a portable Amiga? Ah, there's the other hallowed name among gamers. The holy Amiga. This was a match made in heaven.

The early Lynx games made through on that promise. We had some fantastic games. They were surprisingly modern, too; most computer games were slower, more traditional, leaving the arcade stuff to Nintendo. Epyx clearly had that market in mind with their handheld. Too bad Atari got their mitts on it, huh? Those damned jerks.

Anyway, back to Blue Lightning. The game was the key showoff title, an aerial shoot-em-up clearly inspired by Sega's Afterburner, which was only the coolest arcade game ever. Fast action, multiple explosions, scrolling landscapes, and all of it in glorious color! WOW. No, make that...WOOOOOWW!! Something like that.

It was enough to make me shell out the $150 to get a Lynx. Worth every penny. I can still remember pulling it out of the box in the basement, gleefully awaiting the sight of California Games and Electrocop and Blue Lightning in action. Then again, most of my memories of that house involve the basement being haunted, so keep that in mind. This was a good day on the balance sheet.

Blue Lightning set the standard for 3D graphics that weren't ever really surpassed in the 16-bit generation. You'd expect the Super Nintendo to beat it, but their vaunted "Mode 7," which enabled all its scaling and rotation effects, was surprisingly limited. I don't think a game like Blue Lightning could have been translated without cutting corners.

Landscapes included not only flat plains and oceans, but also hills. Lots of 'em. It was fun to bob and weave, striking missile launchers hidden alongside the trees and roads. It was fun to make out those kind of details. Then there were the mountains. The desert mesas set up the game's greatest action set-piece, a daredevil canyon run. It's one of the most exciting videogame moments of the era. Oh, and you absolutely must fly through the canyons with the afterburners on. Going at normal speed is crazy enough; just try speeding through with the boosters on.

There's also a lot of vertical space, with scaling clouds high above. One mission requires you to sneak across enemy lines undetected, then swoop down to destroy some satellite installations before the missiles come crashing down. It's a great moment of tension.

Hmm, come to think of it, this game does have a lot of variety. Fighting land, sea, and air targets. The action starts off fairly easy, but becomes extremely hectic before you know it. The missions may seem long, but there are only seven of 'em, so you have a long game ahead of you. Passwords are included, which was a crucial touch.

All of which adds up to a game that's just as much fun to play as to watch. Now there's a cliche that rarely delivers as advertised; enough so that the gaming hype machine has all but retired it. But Blue Lightning delivers. Oh, yeah, does it deliver.

I really do wish someone would make a decent emulator for the Lynx. That old Handy emulator just doesn't cut it, and you're really missing out on a great Epyx game.

Videogame Classics - Chip's Challenge

Chip's Challenge - Epyx, for Atari Lynx - 1989

Back to the Atari Lynx games for a short bit. Strange, isn't it, that when I get myself another Nintendo DS, it's only a matter of time before I start pining for my old Lynx. That was a cherished time waster for me back in my teenage years.

Here's one of the best games for the Lynx. Predictably, it's also one of the original Epyx titles, which, as a general rule, were leap years beyond what anyone else was doing. Chip's Challenge was Chuck Summerville's contribution to the puzzler genre, and it's become popular enough to migrate to the PC scene, where a fan community persists to this day. Summerville, also, continues to work on a new, updated version. I wouldn't expect it to be anything more than a glorious fan work, but coming from one of the classic game developers, that really says something.

Most puzzlers fell into the Tetris mold, where you manipulated moving pieces in a pit and matched various pairs. Chip's Challenge is a throwback to those older brain games from the home computer era; I'm thinking of classics like Boulderdash as much as the venerated Sokouban. It's also fiendishly hard. That also comes from the olden days.

You see, kids, way back when, video and computer games didn't care if you could keep up. No, the best games were the ones that challenged you the most, hit you the hardest, and basically didn't give a damn if you crumpled into a million pieces. No holding you by the hand here, no little cartoon characters practically telling you what to do every step of the way. You're dropped into a world of hurt. Think you're tough enough? You've been whining for transcendence all along? Eat this!

Okay, I stole that line from Terence McKenna. Whatever, you get the point.

The idea of Chip's is to collect a number of computer chips in order to complete a level. There are various hazards, following various degrees of the rediculous. But this is a videogame, after all, and there's really no point in trying to be logical, is there? You're trying to evade giant bugs, small tanks, a big set of teeth, some guy in a mask, and the usual elements, all in order to find those damned keys so you can get those last chips.

The first couple levels are somewhat easy, thankfully. They only serve to lull you into a sense of security, which will be smashed out of your brain by level eight. There are over 150 levels in total, and I don't think anyone but the most devout and mental will solve even a majority of them. It's a very brainy sort of game; levels require very precise solutions, very specific movements, like a maze game mashed up against a crossword puzzle.

Now, at the time, back in 1989, color graphics like this were something special. Chip's look was always functional at best, especially compared to the more visually intensive Lynx games like Electrocop and Blue Lightning. But we were fine with that; puzzle games were almost expected to look a little plain. It's as though prettier looks implied less intelligence. Maybe it's a high school nerd-clique thing, I dunno. I try not to think about high school too much. It's bad enough I had to attend my Democratic caucus at a high school; do all those places look so dark and dreary? Ugh.

Here is a perfect example of Inforgrames, or whoever owns the Atari name right now, not getting the picture. They're sitting on games like these that would fit perfectly on, say, Nintendo DS. The DS has proven a versatile home for puzzlers, but there's far too many of the Tetris kind. Chip's Challenge would really stand out. Heck, all of the best Lynx games would. I'd even be fine with a Lynx emulator in lieu of a newer, flashier version. If anyone were smart enough, they'd patiently bide their time, until the Atari library were up for sale. Don't let the coming bankruptcy fool you; there's gold in these vaults. Chip's Challenge is one of the clear standouts.

Supposedly Virtual Console Games Are Still Coming Out

Heh. I know I've been long behind in my coverage of Virtual Console releases, and I've offered up the usual platter of excuses. But, to be brutally honest, my heart just isn't in it these days. I've always strongly supported the idea of a downloadable service like VC, and despite Nintendo's typically over-conservative strategy, continue to champion the service. But it appears that the whole idea has just run out of steam.

Perhaps it's a question of legal rights. The key to VC (and similar rivals like XBLA) lies not in the well-known hits - Mario, Zelda, Sonic, Metroid - but in the more obscure titles, those really good games that disappeared because they didn't spawn a dozen sequels. There are loads of great games on all of the console platforms that would find a new audience today. Unfortunately, that just isn't happening, and I'm increasingly doubtful that it will happen anytime soon.

If Nintendo and the other major publishers were only looking to VC as the latest cheap cash-out for their brand-name hits, then they did a pretty poor job of managing the store. Nearly all of those classics are available now. We're still holding out for Sega to somehow get it's game together for a Sonic 3 & Knuckles release...what else is there? Besides Contra and Mega Man, of course.

The folks who own the Atari name did a lousy job. They've issued the standard number of Atari classics reissues on the other platforms, but what about VC? Why the hell isn't the 2600, 7800, Lynx, and Jaguar available right now? Hell, all you have to do is configure those paddle controller games for the Wiimote, and suddenly Warlords becomes a household name. And where the bloody hell is Tempest 2000? Give that Wiimote control as well, and that game alone will be worth the price of a Wii.

Oh, and I know this is the standard Wii complaint (among those who can actually find one), but it bears repeating: the Nintendo Wii needs a storage space. Either make it an external hard drive of let us save on the memory cards. But get the damned game together.

Once I get a new hard drive this weekend, and assuming I can salvage my old one (please pretty please), I'll post some games on the various consoles that really must be released on VC.

All of which brings us to this week...only two games: Harvest Moon (Super NES) and Lords of Thunder (TG-CD). Or should I be happy, that there are actually two games? Wow. One more piece of coal for the heater. Thanks, Mister Scrooge. They're both kind of, well, bland. I'm not really impressed with either of 'em. No doubt many game fans will enjoy the hell out of 'em, but I'm not one of them.

Harvest Moon - Natsume for Super NES - 5/10

Here's the "short-short" version for you. Harvest Moon is one of those games that's been rehashed far too many times to ever be interesting anymore. The farming theme was interesting 15 years ago, but in the days when I can take Animal Crossing with me on the morning train, it's yesterday's game.

Here's the game. You plant vegetables. You grow stuff. You clear land. You live as a farmer, which, despite all the romanticism of Ma and Pa Kettle, Norman Rockwell paintings, and fantasies of the hot farmer's daughter, is unbelievably boring. There's a reason why everybody moved to the cities. Being on a farm sucks. This reminds me of those videogames that were thinly veiled job simulators, like that one where you're moving crates in a warehouse.* What the hell kind of game is that?! I normally don't encourage this sort of thing, but if your dreams go as far as working a minimum-wage job in a warehouse, or pulling weeds, you need to discover mushrooms.

So...if you really love farming, then start growing a real know, the kind with real vegetables. And if you really want Harvest Moon...get Neil Young's album. Heck, get all of his albums. On vinyl, of course.

Lords of Thunder - Hudson Soft for Turbografx-16 (CD) - 5/10

Lords of Thunder was the sequel to Gate of Thunder, which was a standout smash hit for the TurboDuo CD platform. It was one of those games that came out of nowhere, which largely explains its appeal. But that was the first game. The second one is far less interesting. Perhaps it's because the sci-fi spaceship has been replaced with some fantasy steroid freak, something which I've never been a fan of. You think that D&D fantasy stuff was painfully bad now, just try to imagine the days before all this modern technology. We only had broadcast television, or basic cable. Only 3o channels in existence! And all they ever played was reruns from the 1960's! Augh! The only thing that prepared you for was an affinity for spotting MST3K riffs.

And the! The dark days of hair metal! Good heavens, Americans were really hung up on the fantasy muscleman back then. What was the deal with that, anyway? Was being gay still horribly repressed back then? I guess I wasn't paying attention, or maybe I was getting dizzy from model plane glue and didn't care. My teenage years sucked.

So Lords of Thunder only manages to remind me of all of this...which is why I hate it. No thanks. There are about, oh, a thousand other shooters to choose from. Nearly all of them are the same, in case you didn't notice. You'll be better off with one of those.

*yeah, i know it's called sokouban. sue me.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

"Plastic Soup" of Floating Garbage in Pacific

Good lord, are we trying to go extinct? When I look at what mankind has done to this world, and the dangers that await us in the coming decades - global warming, deforestation, acidic oceans, mass extinctions - I really do wonder about us. We're caught in a death wish.

This report comes courtesy of The Independent UK. 100 million tons of plastic garbage floating through the Pacific currents. This "plastic soup" now covers twice the area of the continental United States. What the bloody hell is the matter, here?

It's at this point that the Supreme Being must seriously be reconsidering the Dinosaurs.

There are consequences to our actions, people. Our Western culture celebrates instant gratification and materialism and a throwaway attitude. We just toss something off and forget about it. But all this garbage and waste will not disappear. The consequences to this wastefullness and stupidity will be visited upon us and our grandchildren. That is, if our grandchildren aren't condemned to extinction.

So that settles it. No more plastic. We shouldn't be using any of it, anyways...aren't you aware that plastic is a petroleum product? Haven't we already decided that getting off our oil addiction is our highest priority? You pay some dictator hard-earned money for a barrel of oil. He uses that money to maintain repressive regimes, which leads directly or indirectly to domestic (and then international) terrorism. The oil we buy goes into our vehicles and industries, and threatens our lives with pollution, disease, and climate change. And then, as a final mark of our idiocracy, we throw away endless mountains of disposable waste.

The civilizations of the past have left their monuments for future generations. Sad and tragic, then, that this may be our final legacy. Get off your chairs and start the revolution today. Do it now! Find ways you can begin to make a difference this very day.

An excerpt from The Independent:

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths
of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine
mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside
the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in
the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square
mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic.

Dr Eriksen said the slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a
risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or
nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every
year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges
attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They
then enter the food chain. "What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and
onto your dinner plate. It's that simple," said Dr Eriksen.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Puzzle Quest - I Really Don't Get This Game

No, seriously. Despite all the fan-driven attention to this game over the past year, I really couldn't quite grok Puzzle Quest. I really don't get it.

The idea of melding genres like puzzlers and role-playing games is interesting, I'll give it that; but the whole exercise was just too slow and repititious and drawn out to ever hold my attention. For my money, Zoo Keeper is a hundred times better.

Puzzle Quest is really more like those free flash games you see on the internet; or more closely, those little mini-game kiosk boxes that you see in landromats and coffeeshops and bars. You know, the ones with the touch-screens, where all the match-the-tile games are hideously awful? Why do I always see the beautiful women doodling with them at the sports bars? Are they really that bored? Where the heck were they when I had Chip's Challenge and Klax to kick around?! Augh.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Somebody Else Finally Noticed Motracer Advance

A few years back, I wrote about a great, but little-known racing game on the Gameboy Advance called Motoracer Advance. It was terrific fun, something of a fun arcadey throwback to the likes of Hang-On, but with excellent scrolling and a hand-drawn cartoon look. The Video Game Critic finally jumped on the bandwagon, and added his review to his excellent site. Good work!

An extra note to Video Game Critic, since we're all here: just when are we gonna see these reviews published in a book? I'd definitely buy a copy. You'd have to make it full-color and include screenshots, of course, but with a skilled graphic artist at the helm, such a book would be really great. And publish via while yer at it...

...and, yeah, I haven't forgotten about my own game books yet. I just don't have a working hard drive for my computer right now....yadda, yadda.

Streeet Fighter 4 - Pile of Famitsu Screens

This game is looking really good. Really, really good. I wasn't too jazzed up on this game before, but now that it's upon us, I'm really excited at the prospect of classic Street Fighter action. It makes me nostalgic for those olden days at the video arcade, where I needlessly squandered my college education.

That reminds me, I really need to finish that damn degree one of these years. Enjoy the photos, kids, and steal all ya want, 'cause they ain't mine.

Mario Kart Wii is Looking Pretty Good

Details from the upcoming Mario Kart Wii are emerging from Japan, and it's looking pretty good. I'm a long-time Mario Kart fan, but I tend to avoid any pre-release hype whenever the newest version arrives. Quite frankly, I don't understand why any hype would exist at all; Mario Kart is Nintendo's most conservative game series by far, and any changes amount to little more than fancy tweaks here and there. Everybody already knows what they're getting - an extremely solid, balanced racer that's perfect for multiplayer.

I'm a great fan of the DS version, enough so to consider it the series' best. Then I go online and enounter that damned, obnoxious "snaking" problem - that's where players can essentially powerslide entirely through courses - and think of changing my mind. But in terms of the basics, from the tight controls to the character roster, the number and variety of cars, and the race courses themselves...Mario Kart DS is my favorite.

It seems that Nintendo isn't changing much of anything for the Wii version. If anything, it's really just the handheld version on a larger screen. Oh, and there are motorbikes, too.

Apparantly, there will be 32 courses again - 16 new, and 16 retro. I'm sure Nintendo doesn't want to overwhelm us, and I'm happy with my DS selections, but I have an honest question here: why not include all the old race tracks? If we're going to follow a retro angle, it seems to be that Smash Brothers Brawl will considerably up the ante. Mario Kart should at least try to follow suit. There's no reason why all the Mario Kart courses couldn't be buried in the game somewhere. It would even be interesting if there were online-exclusives. But there I go, letting my imagination run away again. Nintendo will stick to the tried and true.

If nothing else, I hope Nintendo addresses the snaking issue. It's something that can be easily remedied, like punishing you for taking too many consecutive powerslides. For example, you could add in the element of engine or tire heat. Powersliding too heavily would run the risk of damaging your kart, leading to a nasty spin-out. Have a gauge that fills up every few seconds; once filled, you can run out a couple powerslides right away. Then you would have to wait. This would add an element of strategy to the racing. Since powerslides really make or break races, you would determine just when the right moments would be to use them.

This is kinda like the boosters in F-Zero, in which you were awarded one extra boost with each lap. You could use or save them at your whim. This is but one example of how to fix things.

Anyway, those are my ideas. Fat chance of ever seeing them happen. Why doesn't anybody take advantage of my really great ideas? The prayer of all artists.

Scanning through the newest Mario Kart Wii screenshots on the internets, I noticed one genuinely new addition to the game: stunts. On the motorbikes, at least, it appears you can perform stunts, much like you could back on Wave Race 64. At least a couple of the new racetracks even have half-pipe sections. This could be interesting. I wonder if there'll be a stunt mode. Depends on how many moves you get.

The release date in Japan is currently set for April, which means the game is pretty close to completion. I have no idea when the American version appears. That all depends on Nintendo's schedule for 2008. They may very well hold onto it until the fall, and use it for the next Holiday season. Ugh, I sure hope not. But, hey, I'm not aware of any more big-name titles headed out this year. It's pretty much just Wii Fit, Smash Brothers, Mario Kart, and Animal Crossing. We'll have to wait the usual five years for the next Mario or Zelda, unfortunately. Hey, maybe Nintendo's not making enough Wii consoles for a reason. They know more than the rest of us do.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Winner of the Console Wars - My Bookshelf!

Another Friday without any chance of scoring a Nintendo Wii anywhere. Which means that I take my spending money down to the downtown Borders bookstore. The store is closing for good at 6pm on Saturday, so everything in the place is 40% off. I walked out with another eight books, from literature classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, to current politics, to the 2007 anthology of American science writing.

So, its' really a win-win for me. It's only a loss for Nintendo, who apparantly doesn't care at all about winning new customers. They're perfectly happy to turn me away, and frankly, at this point in the game, I just don't care.*

*It's here that I should add that I'm fully aware of Nintendo's meek claims of being unable to meet global demand for the Wii. But the fact is that their production numbers - 1.8 million per month - haven't changed in ages. And that 1.8 million is for the entire globe; broken down into the three major markets, us Americans only get 600,000 every four weeks. That's just abysmal, and there's no damned excuse.