Friday, May 29, 2015

Tiger... Uppercut!

Geez, you don't have to be so literal about it.

Anyway, this is Kazumi Mishima, the latest character to be announced for Bandai-Namco's upcoming Tekken 7. Do you realize that the series is old enough now that she literally could have been born when it first started back in 1994? Anyway, Kazumi gets a strength boost from her striped sidekick, who briefly appears during certain attacks. Thanks to special Middle Eastern correspondent Badr Alomair for the scoop. (That title sounds a lot more important than "Guy from Riyadh who I watch on Twitter," doesn't it?)

Sorry for the lack of updates, by the way. I've been thinking about making some Game Boy Advance posts, but right now, I'm too busy trying not to melt into a puddle of nerd goo. Curse this Arizona heat!

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Alive and Kicking: More Vita Reviews

"Bring out yer dead!"
"Here's one."
"That'll be nine pence."
"I'm not dead!"
"'Ere, he says he's not dead."
"Yes he is!"
"I'm not."
"Well, he will be soon! He's very ill."
"I'm getting better!"
"I can't take him like that, it's against regulations."
"Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long."
"I think I'll go for a walk..."
"You're not fooling anyone, you know!"

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Vita's not dead just yet. Read these reviews, then come back on Thursday. (Or just whack it now and put it on the cart. Whatever works.)


Not a game known for its good taste.
We've already established in a past blog entry that Borderlands 2 wasn't a good fit for the Vita, but I'll be dipped if the game isn't addictive anyway. It's more focused and story-driven than the original, with your heroes struggling to thwart the plans of the gleefully psychotic corporate kingpin Handsome Jack. However, the draw of leveling up your character and arming them with increasingly powerful weapons remains. It's just good clean fun to target distant enemies with a sniper rifle that sets them ablaze, or drop a grenade that splits into a half dozen pieces, turning the surrounding area into a deadly fireworks display. (Okay, maybe the clean part doesn't apply, but it's fun, dammit!)

The Vita struggles admirably to keep up with the chaos, but occasionally fails, resulting in crashes at the worst possible moments. If the Vita freezes halfway through a lengthy mission, congratulations! You get to do it all over again! [EDIT: It's not quite that severe. The game saves your progress periodically, but if there's a crash, you'll have to wait for the minute it takes to return to the title screen.] Even when the system can keep from messing its pants, it can't match the performance of the Playstation 3 version, with a lower frame rate and enemies that burst into a resource-friendly spray of blood after they've been killed. So the Vita isn't the ideal way to play Borderlands 2, but considering its high demands and the system's limitations, it's impressive that Iron Galaxy got the game running at all.



Why settle for an ordinary bonus?
Lumines was the crown jewel of the PSP launch library; the 21st century's sleeker, more urgent answer to the GameBoy pack-in Tetris. However, as time progressed, Lumines lost its grip on a fickle public. These days, the latest entry in the series can be found at used entertainment stores for as little as five dollars.

That's a shame, because Electronic Symphony is every bit as hypnotic as previous games in the series, with the added bonus of slick new special effects. Drumming the back of the Vita in time with the music will also reward you with power ups that can clear away dangerously high stacks of blocks. It's one of the rare uses of the system's back touch panel that won't make you resent the dreadful thing's existence!

The only issue with Electronic Symphony is an unfortunate constant in Lumines games. Some of the musical selections are more irritating than entrancing, particularly The Chemical Brothers' Hey Boy Hey Girl. (This is popular why, exactly?) The puzzle piece designs are also more distracting now that they're animated, but hey, there are worse things you can do with five bucks.



You can count on it.
Since the second game on the Dreamcast, a big draw to Dead or Alive has been its intricate multi-tiered level designs. In that respect, Dead or Alive 5+ doesn't measure up to its predecessors. Sure, you'll get to tear down the walls of a rundown Chinese house and take a raft down a raging river, but there are also a lot of drab, colorless areas, including a dimly lit oil rig and a grey apartment complex in a city slum. Even the more imaginative stages have a distinct aftertaste of desperation... it's doubtful that any of DOA's fans were hoping to duke it out in the middle of a circus.

Luckily, Dead or Alive 5+ gets everything else right, and is one of the better fighting games in a library packed to the gills with them. You want the smooth, graceful action that's been a trademark of the DOA series from the very beginning? It's here. You want amazing graphics that nearly rival what you'll find in the home versions? You've got it. You want access to Virtua Fighter stars Sara, Akira, and Pai? Of course you do, and Dead or Alive 5+ gives them to you without the hassle of unlocking them in the story mode first. The only things you won't be getting are the upgrades from Dead or Alive 5 Ultimate and Dead or Alive 5 Final Round, which is only bad news if you're eager to pay for more superfluous downloadable content. If you want swimsuits, buy a copy of Sports Illustrated.



You'd need a miracle to pull me away
from Dead or Alive 5+.
Long-time readers know that I really like fighting games. Having said that, I really don't like Arc System Works fighting games. The button layouts are jumbled and counter-intuitive, there's too much emphasis on aerial combat, and battles generally devolve into tedious poke fests. When each hit only takes a couple pixels off your opponent's life bar, it takes a whole lot of them to end the match, making each battle last for what seems like an eternity. Sure, the artwork is a cut above what you'll find in other 2D fighters, but it's hard to appreciate the presentation when the meat and potatoes of the gameplay are so unpalatable.

So it goes with the latest Guilty Gear installment. Despite the superfluous subtitle (you guys lost me at "Accent"), it doesn't seem like much has changed since the fourteen year old Dreamcast game. You've got the same cast, with a handful of newbies continuing the Guilty Gear tradition of extreme weirdness, the same screaming heavy metal riffs, and even the same aspect ratio, with dark bars covering the edges of the Vita's widescreen display. I guess I didn't need all those extra pixels anyway! The bottom line is that it's business as usual for the Guilty Gear series, with little that will turn off fans or inspire detractors to give it another chance.



They see me rollin'...
Fresh ideas in the video game industry are a rare commodity, and if they find an audience, they don't stay fresh long. Just look at Katamari Damacy, which quickly wore out its welcome after a half dozen unnecessary sequels. Touch My Katamari is the latest of these, and brings little to the experience aside from an animated King of all Cosmos and the ability to stretch your rolling ball of clutter into different shapes with the touch panel. There's not much reason to do this beyond covering more surface area, but they had to justify the title somehow!

It may just be more Katamari Damacy (and it's not even one of the better entries in the series), but there's a peculiar comfort in having this game wherever you go. It's not the first Katamari game on a handheld, but it's a more pleasant experience than Me and My Katamari thanks to the Vita's dual analog sticks and a significant reduction in load times. The PSP game would grind to a halt at certain points in your ball's growth, but on the Vita, you're free to scoop up everything from the tiniest crumbs to the tallest buildings without jarring pauses in the action. This makes annoyances like overly difficult level goals and, uh, the king's skintight gold lamé pants a little easier to swallow.



Few games capture that wild west feel
like Stranger's Wrath.
Equal parts platformer and first-person shooter, Stranger's Wrath was a concession to the gaming trends of 2005 which refused to compromise the social commentary and warped humor that defined the Oddworld series. It's hard to notice any major enhancements to the graphics in this HD remake, but it's still fun after all these years to track down hillbilly bandits and blast 'em with lightning bugs, obnoxious squirrels, and ravenous hairballs. As the Stranger, you're given a surprising amount of strategic options in taking down outlaws... you can draw your bounties out into the open and take them alive for a hefty cash bonus, or succumb to your sadistic impulses and drop them into spinning blades and other nasty hazards. Savor the freedom you're given, because it won't last...



Just one of many officious pricks you'll
meet in your adventure.
It's never a good sign when you return to a game out of a morbid sense of obligation rather than because you enjoy it, yet that's exactly what I found myself doing with Freedom Wars. Set in a distant future where resources are dangerously scarce (yet society can somehow build massive prisons and assign cybernetic parole officers to each inmate...), Freedom Wars forces you to repay your debt to society with a seemingly endless series of rescue missions. Step out of line, sometimes literally by taking too many steps, and your already lengthy prison sentence will be increased. The world of Freedom Wars is not a fun place to be, and generally speaking, it's not a fun game to play.

Get bent, you commie throw rug.
In all fairness- or as fair as I'm likely to be to a game that punishes you for excessive walking- Freedom Wars does offer crisp anime visuals along with a handful of promising ideas. You're armed with a thorny energy whip, and you can use it to climb walls and topple over the towering skeletal monsters holding your citizens hostage. However, there's absolutely nothing fun about gun fights with other soldiers, and Freedom Wars delights in making even the simplest tasks needlessly complicated. You'll find yourself battling with menus and the obtuse controls as often as the massive Abductors. Between the dreary fascist setting and gameplay that's challenging in all the wrong ways, just playing Freedom Wars feels like a million year prison sentence.


Hey king, have you ever considered a cup?
Just sayin'...

(special thanks to IMDB for the Monty Python quotes)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Channel F Outtakes

We asked these ordinary folks
what they thought of the Fairchild
Channel F, sure to be the hottest
Christmas gift of 1976!

It's the official home game
console of Mary Lou Retton!

Dig that woodgrain finish, baby!
These cats have got STYLE!

Oh crap, I left the house
wearing THIS?!

Hey man, I think those
threads are swingin', baby!

You DO?!

I can't believe I missed the audition
for that Norman Rockwell painting
for this.

Who made a mess on the carpet?!

Hey, don't look at me, man.

Yeah, sorry, that was me.

Mom said if I don't get braces,
I'll look like this...

It'd be an improvement.

My mom said if I kept making this
face, it would stay that way.
She was RIGHT!

Hey, there's Tab in the
green room, right?

Or a nice sturdy oak log
to gnaw on between takes...
Look, could you people talk
about the system for a minute?

I like the cartridges, but I
wish this thing could show
more than eight colors.

Funny, I didn't notice that...

Wait, this is a video game? I
thought this was a Chanel ad...

I don't even know why I'm here...

The voices tell me to kill
Nolan Bushnell...

Oh lord. Just... take your paycheck
at the front desk and go.

Goodbye, dental plan!

Lisa needs braces!

Get lost already!!

(Images taken from Reddit and various other online sources.)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

You Asked For It!

Pop open the bubbly... Kiblitzing is the winner of the prestigious Liebster Awards! And my prize is... a lengthy questionnaire! Uh, okay. I would have preferred a gold trophy with angels on the top, but this works too. Here now are the answers to eleven questions, along with eleven random facts about myself.

1. Can you tell something typical about the country state you live in?

I'm going to have to agree with Ochalla about my country being too broad a topic for discussion. It's America, land of hamburgers and the people who've gotten fat from eating too many of them. What else do you need to know?

Tucson: Where the skies are partially
cloudy all day.

I'd rather talk about my experiences in Arizona, since I moved here back in November. That was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but I kind of like it here, and may not return to my home state of Michigan. I'm NOT a fan of hot weather, and may come to regret my decision in the summer, but I'm hoping I can tough it out until fall arrives.

Arizona is... an interesting state. Maybe not the most progressive place, but there are pockets of hippies spread throughout, particularly in the tiny border town of Patagonia. I'm fascinated by the wide variety of businesses in Tucson (Bookman's, a used entertainment shop, is a particular favorite) and the desert wildlife throughout the state. There are crows the size of chickens, and raccoons with prehensile tails, and scorpions that fling douche at you when threatened, and hot pink snakes that are at least eight feet long. Forget a different country... sometimes this place feels like another planet!

2. Why did you take up blogging?

I've had a keen interest in journalism since I was in high school. My first "blog" was the school newspaper, which I pretty much monopolized since everyone else in the class was too busy having a social life. I remember raising the ire of the principle for spending so much time talking about video games and antagonizing the school bully.

I'm not exactly proud of the early stuff I'd written... it was undisciplined, self-indulgent, and full of jokes that probably only made sense to myself. I started turning things around in 1995, about the time I took a creative writing course in community college. I can actually go back to the issues of The Gameroom Blitz that I'd written from 1996 to 2000 and not cringe at the writing! 

Oh yes, I forgot about that! Before the internet, I published a handful of video game newsletters, or "fanzines" for you hipsters. I'd also written articles for dozens of others, although as I mentioned before, a lot of the dreck I was writing in the early half of the 1990s would have killed your parakeet if you'd used it to line his cage.

Anyway, fast-forward to 2012. I just ended my web site, also called The Gameroom Blitz, and wanted a non-committal way to write about video games, something I could use whenever the mood struck me. And that segues nicely into the next question!

3. Do you set yourself a goal of number of blogs per week or month?

I didn't at first! Kiblitzing was originally designed as an outlet for random gaming observations, and thus was only updated once a month, maybe less. However, after I got out of the hospital in late 2013, I started reading blogs by writers with greater ambitions. The Gay Gamer, VGJunk, Obscure Video Games... they were all publishing articles on a daily basis. I felt that I could do a lot better than I had been, and started to update once, even twice a week.

There's a danger in publishing daily, because the blog turns into an morbid obligation and you start writing crap just to meet self-imposed deadlines. I never had any great aspirations for Kiblitzing, but at the same time I wanted to make sure the handful of people who read this like what they see and would want to come back for more. It's a tough balancing act.

4. Where do you get your inspiration to write?

When I was a kid, I wrote all the time, whether people wanted to read it or not. I'm no longer as passionate about writing as I used to be, but I still get the itch to pen an article when I find something that grabs my attention. I'm very stimulus/response; if something provokes me, you'd better believe I'm going to have something to say about it. Generally speaking, my most spirited articles are pearls that form after something irritating gets under my shell. Er, skin. Okay, I'm mixing metaphors like a high-speed blender now, so I'd better jump to the next question!

5. Do you own more then one gaming device, and which ones?

Another victim of my mad experiments.
"Do you own more than one gaming device," they ask! I have dozens! Hell, I bought three GameCubes just because they were cheap. (I think I might have a problem.) I've got systems that span the entirety of video game history, from the Atari 2600 to my most recent acquisitions, the Wii U and Playstation Vita. I often have multiples of the older ones, although they're not always in the greatest condition, either because they were like that when I bought them or because I performed surgery on them in the hopes of improving their performance. (That poor, poor Coleco Gemini...)

Right now, three thousand miles separate me from the bulk of my collection, but I've got my trusty PSP, a Vita, three Game Boy Advances, a 3DS XL, a Wii U, and an orphaned GameCube right here in the Arid Zone. And oh yeah, a pretty spiffy gaming desktop built from spare parts, which never gets the attention it deserves.

6. What are your favorite kind of games?

I'm partial to versus fighters, like Street Fighter and my personal favorite Darkstalkers. I even like the crappier ones, because they're often entertaining in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of way. I recently re-discovered a Game Boy Advance fighter called Dual Blades that tries so hard to be something special, but winds up being memorable for all the wrong reasons. I'll have to write about that one someday...

I also dig the old-school arcade classics, and am starting to warm up to role-playing games. I'm unbelievably terrible at the first-person shooters all the kids are playing, and greatly prefer something that lets me contemplate my next move, rather than getting blown apart by some teenager I didn't see until he starts teabagging my corpse.

7. What are your three favorite movies?

May she rust in peace.
(image from Pinterest)
I'm not really big on the movie experience, you know? All that sitting without doing anything works the nerves of someone with a short attention span. Having said that, I think Blade Runner is probably the best film I've ever seen. It's one of those special effects-heavy movies that's aged gracefully in the thirty plus years since its release. I also like Spaceballs more than is probably rational. It's not even Mel Brooks' best comedy, but I like that it pokes holes in the bloated Star Wars franchise, and the character designs are a hoot. Pizza the Hutt? C3P-O as Joan Rivers? A weenie Darth Vader? Come on, that's brilliant!

I guess my last choice would be an animated movie, since I do loves me some cartoons, but I can't honestly pick just one. The Great Mouse Detective is pretty underrated, and it's got Vincent Price in it, so let's go with that.

8. What is your go-to music when you feel sad?

Wow, that's a heavy question. I dunno, I find myself listening to Phideaux when I'm depressed, although it's unbelievably bleak music that only increases my sadness. Tarkus by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer is a good one when I'm frustrated with life and want to lash out at society without ending up in prison afterward. At the Harbor by Renaissance and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot are also good for when you want to wallow in your own despair.

Just some advice... if you're seriously down, don't listen to Losing It by Rush. It's probably the most depressing, hopeless song I've ever heard in my life. If you're in a good mood after you hear it, you won't be afterward. If you're in a bad mood, it will break you.

9. Does your work or study match your blogging topics?

I'm unemployed right now, but yes, I used to be a freelance writer for the late lamented 1UP, so that would be a match. I also have a bachelor's degree in English Lit, but all that's gotten me is a whole lot of debt.

10. If you have a partner, is he or she into gaming?

Heh! Partner. Half the time I have trouble just forcing myself out of the house. I don't really do the romance bit, sorry.

11. What kind of pet do you have?

At the moment, a pair of cockatiels. The male is loud and aggressive, while the female is timid, which is pretty much par for the course for this species. I have a cat back in Michigan, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the feline that crawled all over a news reporter in that online meme.

Eleven facts

The best part of the Odyssey2 were
the crazy cool drawings on the box,
straight out of a dime-store
science-fiction novel.
1. My first video game system was an Odyssey2, a rather inauspicious start to my gaming career. Nearly everyone I knew had one when I was a kid, so I guess they were either really cheap or Magnavox had some seriously slick salesmen at its stores. The Odyssey2 was wimpy even in 1982, with pared down specs and a built-in graphics set. What that meant is that games were abstracted to fit into the machine's whopping 64 bytes of RAM and always, always, always featured square-headed robots as the stars. Even Pachinko! had these blocky droids, poking at balls with pool skimmers. What Pachinko on the Odyssey2 had to do with the Japanese parlor game is anyone's guess.

2. I've grown weary of dreary, depressing "hardcore" games. You see a lot of them on Playstation systems in particular... the Vita alone is home to Soul Sacrifice Delta, where you hang from a dirty cage, reading up on your wizardry to keep from being devoured by a power-mad sorceror, and Freedom Wars, where the title character lives in a futuristic craphole best described as 22nd century North Korea and gets charged with such crimes as amnesia and excessive walking. Nuts to this! Video games are supposed to be escapist fantasy... why the hell would I want to escape to a world worse than this one? When people grumble about Nintendo being too "kiddie" for its own good, I want to drop a cement block on their toes.

3. I'm of the furry persuasion. I suppose I've mentioned this before, but it, heh, bears repeating. My fursona is Clyde Clawmoore, who is essentially me as a sloth bear. He makes a good soapbox for my complaints on Miiverse, of which there are many. Another character I've been known to draw is Byron J. Lennox, a brown bear toddler who used to be the mascot of my fanzines and web site. Byron's existed in some form since 1992, but he sees very little action here on Kiblitzing. I find Clyde better suited to expressing my frustrated gaming rants.

4. I'm not sure why people would share their fears with the rest of the world... it would be like Superman giving Lex Luthor a shiny pair of Kryptonite cufflinks. However, I'm not known for my good judgment, so here goes! Some folks hate spiders or snakes, but I understand the utility of both, and try not to hurt them unless I feel actively threatened. However, show me a house centipede and I will freak the hell out. These things are HORRIBLE. All those spindly, hair-like legs... anything with that many legs has no business existing. I also hate loud, sudden noises and television logos from the 1970s. You remember that big blue V rushing the screen? I know it can't literally escape the television set, but I'm always tempted to defend myself by throwing a shoe at it.

5. If there's one thing that defines this generation of gaming, I'd say social media was it. Thanks to YouTube, everyone's in a mad rush to record their game footage, and both the Xbox One and Playstation 4 have a button on their controllers that lets you do just that. However, my favorite social media app is Miiverse, which lets you take snapshots of a game in progress and comment on them, either with text or simple drawings. You can even draw full color images with the optional Art Academy software, and you'd be stunned by what people can do with it. Hell, even the monochrome sketches in Miiverse can be pretty impressive.

6. One of my favorite game systems is the Game Boy Advance. I just love it like the dickens, you don't even know. I've currently got one Game Boy Micro, and... (counts on fingers) four Game Boy Advance SPs, including two of the old AGS-001 models and two of the models with the improved backlight. I also have two Game Boy Players, but only one boot disc. (Ugh.) People complain that the bulk of the Game Boy Advance library is largely comprised of Super NES retreads, but since I grew up with a Sega Genesis, that doesn't bother me at all. These games are like a new experience to me, and really, who could complain about having Super Mario World with them wherever they go?

7. I'm horribly scatterbrained, and I always have been. Teachers frequently complained that I was a daydreamer, and years later, my mind still wanders three miles away if a conversation fails to hold my interest. I also have a wafer-thin attention span. It's rare for me to finish a game even if I like it, because I get bored or distracted and forget about it for months on end. I don't know if that's a product of my ASD, but it is what it is.

Go ahead, make fun of his pink shirt.
I dare you!
(image from US Magazine)
8. Normally, I'm indifferent about westerns, but I love Gunsmoke. It's got to be in my top five television shows. The storylines are brilliant, the action is intense, and James Arness is perfect as Matt Dillon; soft-spoken, enigmatic, and hugely capable as a sheriff. It bothers me that he's often used as a Deus Ex Machina, arriving in the last ten minutes to resolve the plot of most episodes, but plot conveniences aside this show is one of the best action series of all time. There's no such thing as a bad episode of Gunsmoke... well, except Arizona Midnight.

9. The aging of family members and my own scrape with the Grim Reaper in 2013 has changed my perspective of death. I think about it more, worry about it more. The passing of my grandparents and my stepfather has made me realize that it just takes one death to completely change the dynamic of a family. I also understand that as I get older, I'll continue to lose people close to me, and once they're gone, you can't get them back. It's a sobering thought, and frankly, it scares me.

10. Modern television blows. I thought maybe the grass was greener on the cable side of the fence, but I watched a week of pay TV when I was in the hospital last year and quickly realized that the grass wasn't greener at all... just more generously fertilized. Specialty networks no longer deliver the content promised in their titles... now Animal Planet is "surprisingly human" and The History Channel "makes history every day," typically with reality show idiots. Even cartoons are awful. I remember waking up in the hospital two years ago, tuning into Cartoon Network, and wondering if Uncle Grandpa was a real show or if I just overdosed on pain meds.

11. When it comes to entrees, nothing refreshes like sushi. I started eating it during my weeaboo days, but even after I grew out of that phase I still find myself going back to it. It doesn't weigh heavily on the palate like Western cuisine often does, and I'm pretty sure it's healthier for you too.

There, how's that?

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pushing My Love over the Borderlands

One of these days, Sony's going to have to sit down and reflect on the handheld gaming experience, because after ten years, they still haven't figured it out. Nintendo got the hang of it right away with the GameBoy, making simple yet satisfying diversions that don't demand much from the player or the hardware. By contrast, Sony has tilted at the windmill of console-quality portable gaming for years, culminating in Borderlands 2 for the Playstation Vita. 

This title, a first-person shooter with role-playing elements, would not normally be at the top of my list of games to buy. However, it was on sale at K-Mart for $15, and I desperately needed something to justify my Vita's existence. A teetering pile of versus fighters and a backlog of games for the ancient PSOne just wasn't cutting it anymore. So I took a chance on Borderlands 2, the current Vita pack-in and Sony's last bold grasp at relevance in the handheld wars.

They really should have pinned their hopes for a Vita comeback on a different game.

Almost as cold as the reviews this game got.
The reviews of Borderlands 2 have been mixed. For every critic who's applauded the game's pie-in-the-sky ambition, another has grumbled about the sheer hopelessness of squeezing a big-budget console title into the slight frame of the Vita. Rather than a slimmed-down side story, this is just straight up Borderlands 2, with all the levels, all the firepower, and all the strain of making it work on less capable hardware. The frame rate gets chuggy, onscreen text is hard to read, and using the Vita's bedeviled back touchpad for running and melee attacks is a frustrating kludge.

Personally, I'm not all that bothered by the game's performance issues. First of all, I've played handhelds long enough to temper my expectations of the hardware. Sonic never looked quite as good on the Game Gear as he did the Genesis, and nobody was expecting tournament-caliber gameplay from the button-deficient GameBoy Advance port of Street Fighter Alpha 3. Sony has spent millions trying to convince people otherwise, but the truth is that portable gaming is by its very nature a compromised experience. Pocket-sized systems with limited power consumption will always be at least one generation behind their console counterparts.

Secondly, I've always been fascinated by games for machines that shouldn't be able to handle them. They're typically doomed efforts, but they're also ballsy risks that are impressive simply because they exist. Just look at Dragon's Lair for the GameBoy Color, or Red Zone for the Sega Genesis (shown here), or Secret Quest, the closest thing the Atari 2600 had to The Legend of Zelda. None of these are objectively great games, but they push their respective systems harder than you may have thought possible, which is impressive in its own right. Borderlands 2 on the Vita is one such game... maybe it's not that great in direct comparison to the PC version, but that's hard to complain about when it's as complete as it is on a system dwarfed by your desktop.

The problem with Borderlands 2 isn't that it's a poor fit for the Vita specifically, but that this type of game isn't well suited to any handheld. It's the farthest thing from a pick up and play experience, with a high learning curve and lengthy load times. It takes fifty-eight agonizing seconds just to go from the Vita home menu to the Borderlands 2 title screen. You could be playing Super Mario 3D Land in half the time, and not struggling with a half dozen menus and way too many buttons.

It mirrors one of my first experiences with the PSP, waiting an eternity for Tony Hawk's Underground 2 to load while my friend was having the time of his life with Wario Ware: Touched! on the Nintendo DS. Sony had ten years to learn from their mistakes with the PSP, but with the Vita limping toward the end of its life cycle and no apparent plans for a successor, it doesn't look like they'll get any more chances to do things right.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Modern Primitives

The original GameBoy's modest hardware was designed for portability above all else, but that just made it easy for hackers to bring it to the one place Nintendo had never expected... home computers. GameBoy emulators have existed for nearly twenty years, not just for your trusty desktop but countless other electronic devices. Practically anything with a screen can play GameBoy games, from competing handhelds to smartphones and media players. There's even a GameBoy emulator for the backward compatible GameBoy Advance, because hey, why not?
Yo dawg, we heard you liked Game Boy...

All these systems play GameBoy games perfectly well, but there was always something missing from the experience. However, thanks to the latest technology, you can enjoy GameBoy games the way you really remembered them... in four icky shades of green, with a distracting shadow over the display and pixels that never quite touch.

Yes, people actually missed that part of the experience. Nostalgia does strange things to your mind.

Anyway, this is possible with an emulator called RetroArch. RetroArch is modular, using "cores" to handle a wide variety of game systems. However, its use of shaders to emulate not just the games themselves, but the way they look on real hardware, is what sets it apart from the scores of other emulators on the internet. RetroArch includes an assortment of handheld shaders, which uncannily reproduce the experience of risking blindness while being hunched over your favorite portable. Observe!

This is Super Mario Land, one of the GameBoy's launch titles. Even back in 1989 it wasn't much to look at, but the handheld shader adds a sense of authenticity that's missing from other emulators. Anywhere else (even on Nintendo's own 3DS!), this game's artwork would be off-puttingly simplistic, but RetroArch makes it seem charmingly quaint. The separated pixels, each with their own faint shadow, add texture to an otherwise plain image.

Let's look at another game, running on a different shader.

This is Bonk's Adventure. Like a lot of other early GameBoy titles, this is scaled down from its console counterpart, but not nearly as much as Super Mario Land. The characters are larger and the backgrounds are better defined... where Super Mario Land offers simple lines for mountains, Bonk's Adventure goes all out with a craggy volcano partially obscured by fluffy treetops.

The GameBoy could pack a surprising amount of detail into that tiny green screen, as evidenced by this cut scene from Sunsoft's Batman:

I've found that still images benefit from the GameBoy's monochrome display, looking more realistic than the harsh purples and browns of the NES.

Let's move on to one of the GameBoy's early competitors, the Atari Lynx. Fans of the system often point to the color display as proof of its superiority, but the harsh reality is that its screen really wasn't that great, either. This image from Toki should give you some idea of what to expect.

The Lynx was burdened with a low resolution that made its games look coarse, and the limited color output (typically sixteen colors to a screen, with very few exceptions) didn't help matters much. The GameBoy's four shades of grey gave its visuals subtlety and nuance. "Subtlety" just wasn't in the Lynx's vocabulary.

What's missing from this image is the Lynx backlight, which left the display so badly washed out that it was tough to see in most lighting conditions. After playing mine, Jeremy Parish swore he'd never complain about the unlit screen of the Game Boy Advance again.

About that! RetroArch works with Game Boy Advance games too, and since that's one of my all-time favorite consoles, I've taken a few snapshots of its own software in action. Here now is Final Fight One.

Oh my. I was probably pretty happy with this in 2002, but after Capcom Classics Remixed for the PSP, I'm a lot harder to please. This is clearly based on the lacking Super NES version, with half the breakable objects and Poison replaced with this generic thug. About the only thing Final Fight One didn't take from the Super NES game was its soundtrack, offering a disconcertingly 8-bit remix in its place. Capcom must have had trouble getting a handle on the Game Boy Advance sound processor, but after a couple of years, they got the hang of it. Just compare the music in Disney's Magical Quest to its sequels... you'll hear a world of difference.

Mega Man and Bass, another Super NES port which recently made its debut on the Wii U's Virtual Console, is a lot more impressive. There's a lot of yap online about how the lower resolution of the Game Boy Advance leaves you with a blind spot, but that hardly makes the game "unplayable" as some have suggested. Just, er, trickier.

This is from the Green Jello Devil fight at the beginning of the game. Shortly before this battle, newcomer King takes a big honkin' axe and slices Protoman's legs off. "Just a scratch," indeed.

Okay, one more game before I sign off. Here's an image from Prehistorik Man, a Titus platformer that was one of the Game Boy Advance's most pleasant surprises. Of course, since it was published by the same people who brought us Superman 64, nobody would go near it. Trust me, though, it's good. Not good enough to forgive Titus for Superman 64, because nothing could be, but a wonderfully silly action title that brings to mind all the great prehistoric platformers of the past.

Gee, that's the second biggest hamburger I've ever seen.

Wait, why is that checkpoint monster called a Rees-Tartah? Oh! Like "restarter!" It's been years since I first played this and just now, I finally get the joke. Boy do I feel (don't go there, Jess), uh... stupid.