Thursday, July 30, 2015

Miiverse, Take Two

The much-feared Miiverse redesign has finally launched, and it was not the disaster I'd expected, although I'm not completely satisfied with it either. It's still possible to pair screenshots with drawings, for instance, but the process for doing this isn't nearly as intuitive as it once was. Instead of just making your post, you've got to visit the proper community (either from your favorites list or with a search), scroll down to new drawings on that page, THEN make your post. I suspect Nintendo never intended to let users post screenshots and drawings together, but kludged in that option at the last minute to address user complaints. So it works, but just barely. Hopefully a future update will fix this, because as it is now, it's inconvenient and really, really annoying.

On the plus side, separating the different types of posts cleans up the interface a bit, and the thirty post limit gives most users plenty of opportunities to speak their minds while cutting down on all that silly role-playing the younger members were doing. Sorry kids, but maybe IRC would be a better place to bring your Five Nights at Freddy's fantasies (disturbing as they are) to life.

Oh yeah! One more thing before I go. Under Defeat HD, the Playstation 3 port of the late Dreamcast shoot 'em up, is available for three dollars on PSN. Even if you're not a fan of these games, pick it up... the incredible music will make you glad you did.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Not-Game and Watch

I know, I know, it's been ages since I've posted here. But this was worth breaking my silence. Observe!

For the first time ever, I regret that Nintendo didn't release the smaller of the two New 3DS models here in the United States. I mean, it doesn't actually DO anything but tell the time and the temperature, but look at how cool it is! Special thanks to Tiny Cartridge for the scoop, and for the image.

Also! Even though Sony is no longer supporting Playstation Mobile, you can still download its games using this handy link. (Visit the link directly from your Vita or Playstation TV... there, NOW it will work.) This was provided by Adam Mowery, the creator of Curse of the Crescent Isle DX and Blue Beacon, which are both available on the page. However, you can also download Brandon Sheffield's gonzo OutRun parody Oh Deer! Alpha, where you'll swerve through winding roads dodging the hundreds of deer in your path. Hey, it's just like living in Michigan all over again! It's also incredibly faithful to OutRun, as evidenced by my inability to finish it before time runs out. 

For just fifty cents, I'd recommend grabbing a copy of Oh Deer! Alpha for yourself. Even though Brandon once called me an "insufferable whiner" on his web site. Which probably proves his point, since I'm still complaining about it nine years later. Whoops!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Whole Lotta Iwata: Fight of the Bumblebees

"Screw you, gravity!"
(image from Niconites)
A quick look at the bumblebee suggests that this bulbous bug shouldn't be capable of sustained flight, yet there it is, buzzing from flower to flower with little effort. Similarly, logic dictates that neither an ostrich nor a grown man holding two dime store balloons should be able to soar through the sky, but they too defy the laws of gravity... at least on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Balloon Fight, programmed by the late Satoru Iwata, is one of the more fondly remembered launch titles for the console, while Joust is an arcade classic, ported to the NES by HAL Laboratory, the publisher where Iwata spent much of his adult life. But which of these two games rules the sky in spite of the laws of aerodynamics? Let's find out...

We'll look at Balloon Fight first. It wasn't the first of the two games, but it was the first released on the NES, so it seems fair to start here. Balloon Fight was one of a handful of "black box" titles that was introduced along with the system when it made its American debut in late 1985. 

(Image from Racketboy)
It's worth taking a look at the box design before we proceed... with its simple, barely embellished pixel artwork set against a dark void, it was markedly different from the detailed science-fiction scenarios on the front of games for the Atari 2600. It also demonstrated confidence in the product inside that box. "This is what you're getting," it said. "We've got nothing to hide. We can use the artwork from the game on the cover, because it's that good." It was a bold statement in the 1980s, and these covers still hold up today as an early example of pixel art for art's sake.

Most of these black box games were simple action titles that didn't hold the player's attention for long. You're not going to find too many people who look back fondly on the time they spent with Pinball, Wrecking Crew, or Clu Clu Land. However, Balloon Fight is one of the rare NES launch titles with legs. It got an expanded sequel on the GameBoy, a spin-off for the Nintendo DS starring Legend of Zelda sidekick/nuisance Tingle, and still pops up from time to time as a Virtual Console release.

Uh oh.
Why do people keep coming back to Balloon Fight thirty years after its NES debut? It uses the addictive arcade game Joust as its foundation, but gives it the Nintendo treatment, changing the bleak fantasy setting into something gentler and sillier. Gone are the lance-wielding knights using massive birds as their steeds, replaced with men clutching desperately to pairs of shiny red balloons. Combatants aren't dragged to their deaths by a lava troll, but are instead gobbled up by a hungry fish. Even the gameplay seems friendlier; slightly slower and with lighter physics. Hammering the button was necessary to stay aloft in Joust, but here, you can stay airborne with just a few well-timed taps, making it easier to get the drop on your enemies. (You can even hold the button down if you'd like to spare your controller from all that unnecessary abuse. Thanks, Mr. Iwata.)

Your opinion of Balloon Fight's less threatening atmosphere is ultimately going to decide which game you prefer. As a teenager, I was offended that Nintendo would take one of my arcade favorites and pull out its fangs. Joust had an utterly brilliant setting, with pterodactyls gliding through the skies in search of prey and knights that emerge from eggs. Why mess with that? On the flip side, maybe some players just didn't appreciate the concept of knights locked in mortal combat, and needed a little sugar to make the gameplay go down more smoothly.

You're gonna die here.
Just accept it.
Balloon Fight is also more diverse than Joust. When you're tired of popping your opponents' balloons and plunging them into a watery grave, you can catch balloons that stream out of pipes in the bonus stage, or struggle to stay alive in a scrolling gauntlet filled with sparks of lightning. Joust pulls out a few platforms to make the game more challenging, and tweaks the rules a little in some stages (collect all the eggs before they hatch! Survive the round for bonus points!), but beyond that, things don't change that much. That would have to wait for Joust 2, a game that feels even more Nintendo-ized than Balloon Fight thanks to its use of bosses and an overabundance of new game elements. Nobody wants to turn into a heavy-ass pegasus or fight endless flocks of "crystal bats," Williams. Trust me on this one.

(Image from NESConsole)
That brings us to the NES version of Joust. Amusingly, it was ported to the system by HAL Laboratory, and may very well have been programmed by Satoru Iwata himself! Of the three Atari and Williams arcade games HAL converted to the NES, this is arguably the best of the lot. It's a good sight better than the thin port of Defender II, which looks almost as good as the arcade game Stargate but strips away half the rules, making it pointlessly dull and repetitive.

Less beatable than advertised!
But only slightly.
Joust for the NES gets some of the details that other conversions of the game miss, particularly the attract mode that explains how the game works and hints that the ferocious pterodactyl is not as invincible as it first appears. At the same time, the designers ignored a few of the arcade game's rules- do NOT stand on a regeneration pad if you value your life- and the dull color palette of the NES turns vivid blues into lifeless cyans and adds an unwelcome touch of yellow to the greens of the buzzards. The control is frustratingly slippery too, making it tough to bring your ostrich to a complete halt. When the screen is thick with hungry vultures and you need precise control of your character to survive the onslaught, this can be a problem.

If I were comparing the NES version of Balloon Fight to the arcade version of Joust, I'd declare Joust the victor in a heartbeat... but that wouldn't be fair. In a battle between the two games on the same system, by the same developers, Balloon Fight (grumble...) comes out on top. Obvious effort was put into the NES port of Joust, but compared to the arcade original and the acclaimed conversion for the Atari 7800, it can't quite leave the ground.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Look Who's Come Crawling Back: The Xbox 360 E

What is it they say about the devil you know and the devil you don't? I'm experiencing that right now with the recent purchase of an Xbox 360 E, the third model of Microsoft's most successful game console. 

On one hand, it's comforting to go back to the system's familiar interface, after the Playstation 3's less than endearing Xross Media Bar (yes, that's how it's branded) and its needlessly convoluted digital download system. Rather than the laborious process of buying a game, then downloading it, then installing it, the Xbox 360 handles all of that for you after you've made your purchase. You wouldn't go to an auto repair shop for a new tire and install it yourself, would you? Same principle.

The Xbox 360 E, in horizontal position.
Yes, I need to clean my countertop.
On the other... the Xbox experience is maybe a little too familiar for its own good. I've slightly resented the Metro GUI since it was forced on computer users with the latest versions of Windows, and the front end graphics are aggressively plain with a liberal use of green and grey. Maybe a different wallpaper would help, I don't know, but it probably wouldn't distract me from all these irritating advertisements. No, Microsoft, I don't want to see Joe Dirt 2. Frankly, I'm a little astonished they made the first one.

But enough of that. You might be wondering what the difference is between the Xbox 360 E and its predecessors. Beyond a trimming of size and a couple of features, not much. It's the 2600 Jr. or the top-loading NES of the 21st century, with the outer shell given a modern look but the core experience left intact. 

The backside of the Xbox 360 E, complete with
two USB jacks, an HDMI port, and a dial to
adjust the darkness of your English Muffins.
Oh wait, that's my toaster.
Actually, scratch that. The E does have a few advantages over the launch model of the Xbox 360. There's an extra USB port, an internal wi-fi antenna (FINALLY), support for HDMI displays, a 3.5 mm A/V jack, and what else...? Oh yeah, it works, which is more than you can say for the lion's share of older Xbox 360s. In accordance with Moore's law, Microsoft has reduced the internal components to a fraction of their original size, making them more reliable and energy efficient. The system still runs extremely hot, turning into a furnace after an hour of use, but so far, that hasn't translated into system crashes or other serious issues.

I bought my Xbox 360 E used... if you do the same, there's something you need to know about your purchase. Some models of the E have a small amount of storage built in, but not all of them do! If your machine ships without a hard drive, there's a chance it was removed, and you'll have no storage at all for your games. While you can use ordinary flash drives as a stopgap, you're better off with an internal hard drive. They fit inside the system, work more intuitively, and offer more room for your software.

Hey, it saved me fifty bucks!
Luckily, you don't have to pay Microsoft's extortionate prices for one! I just fished a Western Digital out of an abandoned laptop, flashed it with special firmware, and threw it into the 360, using some folded cardboard as a brace. That... may not have been such a great idea considering how hot the E gets, but it'll get the job done until the hard drive shell from eBay finally arrives.

My E may not be cutting edge in 2015, but for sixty dollars plus some pocket change for the hard drive, I can hardly complain. Besides, I've got a secret for you guys... video games on last generation systems still look pretty great! Seriously, check them out sometime. Unless you play all your games on a Jumbotron or have bionic eyes, I doubt you're going to see much of a difference between them and their "definitive" counterparts on next-gen systems.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

No Refunds

I'm gonna take a brief break from celebrating Satoru Iwata's life. To be honest, I'm getting a little upset by the questionably timed articles proclaiming that the Wii U wasn't so bad after all, followed immediately by a flood of comments insisting that the Wii U WAS that bad, along with the usual tired fanboy spew about how the Xbox One and Playstation 4 are what gamers really want (definitive editions of games they already own...?) and that they pwn u 4ever noob. 

Look, the media's sudden reversal on the Wii U strikes me as oddly convenient, too. I'm sure Satoru Iwata would have better appreciated a second, less critical look at the system if he had been alive to see it. However, the backlash against these articles is in immensely poor taste and demonstrates a level of hypocrisy only the most blindly loyal system advocates could ignore. 

What was a common complaint about Nintendo? They release the same games over and over, right? Well, who's actually guilty of that in this console cycle? Nintendo has been trying new things with its properties (Yoshi's Woolly World) and creating entirely new ones (Splatoon). Meanwhile, Sony and Microsoft have been churning out definitive editions of games that were released just a couple of years ago and were already perfectly serviceable on last generation systems. Tomb Raider. Sleeping Dogs. The Last of Us. God of War. Prototype. Uncharted. Darksiders II. And the list goes on and on and on, because the gaming media hasn't given Sony and Microsoft the proper scrutiny for reheating their leftovers. We've heard a lot of slag about how these systems are more powerful than anything that has come before them. Well, where's the proof?!

We're seeing a lot of buyer's remorse from guilty game journalists in the wake of Satoru Iwata's demise. However, all that backpedaling wouldn't even have been necessary if they'd shown some objectivity in this console cycle. Maybe instead of hungrily licking your lips at every Nintendo failure while pumping constant undeserved hype into Microsoft and Sony's respective systems, you could... do your jobs? Just a thought.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Whole Lotta Iwata: Kirby's Dream Land

As you may recall from my last post, I had a lot of conflicting emotions about Satoru Iwata's death. Sure I felt terrible, but just who was it that I was feeling terrible for, exactly? Since I didn't really know the man personally, it felt like mourning his passing (and by association, what it meant for me as a Nintendo fan) was selfish. However, when I took those concerns elsewhere, someone pointed out that all mourning is by its nature selfish, and that instead of dwelling on that fact, I should celebrate what gave Iwata's life meaning. "He liked making fun things. So why not appreciate those fun things, and regret that he's not around to make more fun things?"

(Image from NintendoLife, as you could
probably tell from the watermark)
So that's exactly what I'll do, and I know just where to start! On a trip to Tucson a couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to find a bowl full of clearance priced cartridges for the Game Boy Advance. Many of these titles were licensed garbage... a Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen game here, a Nicktoons game there. However, mixed into the bowl were a handful of early releases for the original black and white Game Boy. Now, I don't make it a habit to collect for that system... it was never a personal favorite of mine, and I like the Game Boy Advance a whole lot more. However, I found a copy of Kirby's Dream Land buried in the bowl, and for two dollars and some change I figured, "Why not?"

That was a smart move... not only because Kirby's Dream Land is a great game, but because it's a fascinating history lesson. Everything you love about the Kirby series had its roots right here, from the jaunty "didn't I hear this tune on a game show...?" soundtrack to the familiar cast of enemies to those silly little animations that introduce each stage. However, Kirby's debut was an extremely basic game, leaving lots of room for expansion. Swallowing foes gives Kirby... nothing, and what look like the entrances to hidden rooms lead only to disappointment. At twenty minutes from start to finish, it's just the right size for an original Game Boy game, but I'm glad the series evolved along with the industry over the last two decades.

Kirby... brought to you in COLOR!
(Thanks to Game Boy Crammer for the image)
Oh yeah, there's one other thing! Playing Kirby's Dream Land on a Game Boy Advance adds rudimentary color, with all the characters taking on a shade of pink and the backgrounds adopting different hues depending on the stage. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't- Whispy Woods looks like he's wearing lipstick!- but the injection of color does add welcome contrast. Beyond that, it just feels right for Kirby to be pink, you know?

Wait wait, there's something else! Why's Kirby always fighting with former HAL Laboratory mascot Lolo? In the first game it was just an amusing cameo, but now I'm just wondering why they hate each other so much.

Okay, one MORE thing. According to USGamer's Nadia Oxford, Kirby's original name was "Tinkle Popo." I know I should be showing Mr. Iwata the proper respect here, but...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I Can't Understand

This has been a rough day. If you're a gamer, you already know why... Satoru Iwata, the long-time developer for HAL Laboratories who graduated to Nintendo CEO after Hiroshi Yamauchi retired in 2002, died from complications of a bile duct growth yesterday. It's all a little hard to take in, especially since I had no idea Iwata was ill. For me, there was no warning... everything Nintendo is and has been for the last thirteen years just came to a screeching halt with a single Twitter post. Are you sure? This isn't a hoax, is it? Oh, it came from a Nintendo press release? That is pretty official, isn't it? Shit.

What really gets me is that I don't know if I can honestly grieve for this man. I've never met Satoru Iwata, never knew him personally. I just appreciate his work as both a game designer (dating all the way back to Star Battle for the ancient VIC-20) and the leader of a major game company. The Iwata era ushered in a new, more Western-friendly Nintendo, with a console that appealed to almost everyone and a lantern-jawed marketing executive who vowed to kick ass and take names while making games.

So I'm not sure if mourning Iwata's death is a genuine act of sympathy, or just selfishness on my part. Would I care if he had been lower on the Nintendo food chain, perhaps a lesser known programmer or a random accountant buried deep within the company? Would it matter if he had nothing to do with the company at all; just an ordinary salaryman trying to make ends meet? I think about Iwata's death and wonder if I'm mourning the man himself, or what he's done for me, and what will happen to Nintendo (and by proxy, me) in his absence.

I feel terrible that this all happened. But for who, exactly? It's something I'll have to come to grips with as Nintendo deals with this loss and plans for an uncertain future.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Totally Smashed!

Here comes another completely self-indulgent blog entry!

I stopped by that rat's nest Goodwill in Southern Arizona yesterday, and came across this goodie:

Yep, it's the GameCube version of Smash Bros., heralded by fans as the best game in the series. I don't know how fewer characters translates into a better experience, but I guess Melee also runs 20% faster than the later games, making it more "hardcore" than the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS versions. Personally, I'm quite happy with my noob-friendly Smash games, but this was $10 at the thrift store and the game costs several times that online, so I sure as hell wasn't going to pass it up.

Oh yes, and before you ask:

Everything's in the case, including the disc and a minty instruction manual. (Not pictured: an advertisement for the long-dead Nintendo Power.) I haven't tested it out on my silver Cube yet, but judging from the condition of the disc I'm expecting smooth sailing. Even if it doesn't work, I can always run the game from my Wii U using Nintendon't. And I intendo! Uh, intend to.

I just came to the realization that with the acquisition of Melee and my copy of Smash Bros. for the N64 back in Michigan, I have every game in this series. Every game! I don't think I've had every game in ANY series before! That streak will be broken when Nintendo eventually releases Smash Bros. NX, but for now, I can bask in the completeness of this collection. 

About that. It sounds like Nintendo is gearing up to replace the Wii U in 2016 with the NX, a system that's every bit as mysterious as its name would suggest. Some folks say it's going to be a gamepad with the system tucked inside, while others claim that it (gulp) won't be as powerful as other next generation consoles. Oh Nintendo, it's been ten years since the Wii, which badly lagged behind its competitors in overall performance and paid the price with horrendous third party support. Haven't you learned your lesson yet? (Probably not, no.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Playstation 3, Take 3

Before we begin the festivities, I just wanted to show you my work on that Game Boy Advance SP...

A guy on the AtariAge forum named IceManXP300 was kind enough to make a handful of vinyl stencils out of this design, then explained in detail how to use spraypaint to make it a permanent part of the system. I've got to say I'm pretty happy with the results, and most everyone I've shown it to has been equally impressed.

With that out of the way, let's talk about the Playstation 3. As you may already know, my last one petered out on me after two weeks and had to go back to the seller. He refunded my money plus shipping, so I've got no complaints there. Nevertheless, I wanted to make sure its replacement was not only cheap, but built to last. Let me tell you, it's no fun spending eight hours installing your entire PSN collection, only to have to delete it all and start from scratch.

This time, I picked up a PS3 Slim from a pawn shop in the Tucson area for a reasonable $75. The shop has a good reputation and the system has a six month warranty, so unless I'm profoundly unlucky, I should have nothing to worry about. (I hope.) This system's also got a larger hard drive than the last one, which is a relief as the PS3 seems to burn through storage more quickly than the Xbox 360.

Unfortunately, it might be a couple of days before I can do any serious gaming with this system. I'm lacking a Playstation A/V cable, which means I can't hear any of my games until the one I purchased from eBay finally arrives or I stop being a cheap bastard and buy a real television instead of the computer monitor I'm currently using. These cables aren't exactly rare, you know. I've got tons of 'em in Michigan... why can't I find any HERE?

Anyway. I'm currently running the Capcom vs. SNK 2 attract mode as a makeshift burn-in test, hoping the system can stay cool after prolonged use. Hopefully that cable will get here soon so I don't have to spend the next couple of days licking my lips hungrily as the game plays itself.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Console Cryptids Caught on Film!

Pretty big news... someone found a prototype of the Super NES CD-ROM co-designed by Sony and posted it on the internet for the world to see. There have been skeptics questioning its legitimacy, but you can count me as one of the believers. It looks a little too dated in both the design and the yellowed bottom half of the case to be a hoax. Also, I'm amused by the buttload of Sony branding on the device. You wouldn't know Nintendo had anything to do with the machine, which explains why they ultimately decided not to release it.

So, you guys know how big a fan I am of Miiverse, right? Well, maybe not for long. Nintendo is planning an update to the social networking service which removes much of its flexibility. You'll no longer be able to post drawings in response to game screenshots or as part of ongoing discussions... they'll instead be restricted to their own area, like so many rowdy kids at a Thanksgiving dinner. Say you want to sketch out a simple map to guide someone through a tricky stage, or respond to a specific scene in a game with a snarky comic. Well, sucks to be you, because after the update, that ain't happenin'!

So Nintendo, bubbala, what's got you thinking this is a good idea? Okay, sure, you'll be able to better moderate Miiverse; maybe cut down on all those silly RPs the younger members are doing. What about us artists, though? Not only will our drawings lose important context without screenshots to accompany them, users may not see them at all because you also plan to give preferential treatment to the site's most popular members. You'll have to dig through a mountain of Five Nights at Freddy's drawings and tired anime to see pictures by the B-listers.

I'm gonna come right out and say it: this is a dick move, guys. Please reconsider.