Monday, November 30, 2015

Bubsy 3D: A Second Opinion

There's an old joke I like about a guy who goes to his doctor for a check-up. The doctor tells him, "You're overweight," and the guy responds, "I want a second opinion!" Without losing a beat, the doctor quips, "Okay, you're ugly too."

The platforming... could be worse.
Really, it's theoretically possible.
This is going to be one of those second opinions. I recently played Bubsy 3D: Furbitten Planet out of morbid curiosity, and while I can't really disagree with the reviews complaining about its horrendous gameplay, I don't think it's what hurts it the most. Keep in mind that Bubsy 3D came out in 1996, when analog thumbsticks weren't standard equipment for game systems. Aside from rare gems like Jumping Flash!, turn-walk-turn was just expected from 3D platformers. Bubsy 3D is certainly not one of the better games in this genre, but it doesn't seem to play much worse than its competitors. I remember Croc on the Sega Saturn being just as cumbersome, with a turning radius that would be more appropriate for a semi hauling lead bricks than a video game mascot. At least Bubsy 3D lets you make minute adjustments to your position and grab the edges of hanging platforms that other characters would miss.

A face even a mother would love
to punch into mush.
No, the big problem with Bubsy 3D is that it's just so damned annoying. I mean, the Bubsy character has never been particularly lovable before, but in Furbitten Planet his personality has shifted into weapons-grade obnoxious. He's now voiced by Lani Minella, doing her best-worst imitation of Flim-Flam from the 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. (You don't remember this short-lived sidekick, huh? It's probably better that way.) Lani's Bubsy spits out tired catchphrases after hopping on his enemies, or more likely, missing them by a couple of inches and getting injured in the process. If it tells you anything, he actually squeals "Aye caramba!" from time to time, an exclamation even Bart Simpson wouldn't have touched in 1996. Salting the wound is a soundtrack that desperately tries to give the action wacky cartoon ambiance, and only succeeds in giving the player a splitting headache. This is probably the worst music I've ever heard in a video game, and I've been playing them since the 1970s. Wherever Osama bin Ladin is right now, he's probably hearing this soundtrack on endless loop.

So everything you've heard about Bubsy 3D is true. It really is awful; just not for the reasons you were expecting. I could forgive the limitations of mid 1990s technology and the flaws in a genre of games that weren't properly addressed until Super Mario 64 and Spyro the Dragon were released a year later. It's Bubsy himself who ruins this release, with a forced, creaky sense of humor that's too little to entertain and fifty years too late to be relevant. There's a rumor that Bubsy is planning a comeback for 2016... one can only hope he brings new material with him.

Special thanks to Stranno, whose Bubsy 3D playthrough on YouTube provided the images for this blog entry.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

You Never Forget Your First... matter how hard you try. And my first game system was the Odyssey2, released by Magnavox in 1978. Even for the time, the Odyssey2 wasn't all that great. In fact, with its peculiar hardware and stifling limitations, it was one of the least greatest game consoles of its generation. While the industry-leading Atari 2600 had 128 bytes of RAM, the Odyssey2 had 64... not even enough memory to hold this sentence. While the Atari 2600 could be coaxed into displaying surprisingly sophisticated graphics with a rich color palette, the Odyssey2 was stuck in first gear with a pre-defined character set. Once programmers used up the system's four sprites, they were stuck with blocks, trees, and the square-headed robots that became synonymous with the Odyssey2 experience. Just try to find a game in the system's library without these blocky androids. Unless it's got "K.C." in the title, you'll be looking for a while.

K.C. Munchkin was promoted on television with
this animation, which stupid little kids (me)
mistook for the game's actual graphics.
Not even on your best day, Odyssey2.
The Odyssey2 was rightly savaged by members of the gaming press, particularly Craig Kubey, who rebranded its sad-sack golf simulation Computer Golf? and snarked that calling its Space Invaders clone Alien Invaders- Plus! made about as much sense as referring to Phyllis Diller as Catherine Deneuve- Plus! (Actually, judging from the recent picture on Wikipedia, that description might not be so far off-base...) Yet despite this, there is a certain strange charm to Odyssey2 games. Sure, they were often familiar retreads of hit arcade games, but they were changed just enough (likely due to the aforementioned hardware limitations) to make them seem refreshing in an age when knock-offs were aggravatingly common.

K.C.'s Krazy Chase, the closest thing the
Odyssey2 had to a killer app.
Take K.C. Munchkin, for instance. The game was forced off the market by Atari, which cited similarities to its console version of Pac-Man. However, K.C. is one link higher on the food chain than Pac-Man, and that makes all the difference. The dots in K.C. Munchkin don't just wait around to be eaten, roaming the maze and keeping their distance from the title character when only one or two remain. K.C.'s Krazy Chase further widened the gap between the series and its inspiration, with a serpentine "Draterpillar" whose head is instantly fatal but whose body segments can be munched for bonus points and a brief power boost. It was a more clever evolution of the Pac-Man gameplay than what some of the official sequels (cough Pac-Man Plus cough) had to offer...

Then there's Alien Invaders- Plus!. Sure, it's no Space Invaders, but that's the beauty of it. Rather than a fleet of mindlessly marching aliens, your primary opponent is the incredibly wily mothership at the top of the screen. It squeezes shots between its already well-armed troops and flies down for a face to face confrontation once all its soldiers are destroyed. If you're hit with a bullet, you'll be left defenseless, and will have to sacrifice a bunker to get your tank back. Run out of bunkers, and you're easy pickins for the Merciless Monstroth and its minions. Kubey was wrong about this one... the battle of wits against the mothership makes this as tense now as it was when I was eight.

This is Popeye. I... guess?
Not all of the twists in the Odyssey2's library of faux arcade games were successful, however. UFO was an Asteroids-alike which took out that game's thrusters, giving the player more precise control of their ship. Instead, the challenge came from aiming the laser, which spun around the craft as it puttered slowly through space. Kind of a monkey's paw trade there. Freedom Fighters tried its best to scratch that Defender itch, but without a planet to skim over and a wide variety of enemies to battle it gets tiresome (to say nothing of frustrating) in a hurry. Then you have the handful of actual arcade translations by Parker Brothers, which demonstrate just how hopelessly ill-equipped the Odyssey2 was to entertain players in the early 1980s. Watching the system try to pull off Super Cobra, Q*Bert, or Popeye is like watching your drunk uncle dance at the family Christmas party. This just isn't the time or place...

Despite its failings, the Odyssey2 still has a persistent attraction which makes me return to it every couple of years. It's what convinced me to revive the machine I had buried in my parents' old barn, and it's why I recently installed an Odyssey2 emulator on both of my PSPs. That emulator, EmuODD, is only slightly less dusty than the system I rescued in 2013... author Consolius released it a decade ago, and the program hasn't seen any updates since its debut. As a result, EmuODD is picky about which firmware you use, and looks pretty crappy on the PSP's Cross Media Bar. Hell, it's not even properly labeled!

I can't do much about the firmware issues (if it doesn't run for you, try switching to 6.60 LME), but the presentation is another matter entirely. I added a couple of images to the EBOOT file, and it makes a big difference. Now you actually know what the program is before you start it! Give it a spin and let me know what you think.

Monday, November 23, 2015

(Unsanctioned) Fun with Nintendo Badge Arcade

The crappy thing about Nintendo Badge Arcade (aside from paying for virtual items, and having to talk to that stupid rabbit) is that although you can use the badges to customize your home screen, that customization is pretty limited. "Use your badges to make your own scenes, and I'll show the best ones in my gallery!," the rabbit promises. Then you wander into the gallery and spot a half-dozen portraits littered with random sprites from the original Super Mario Bros. I wasn't expecting the Guggenheim here, but I've seen more clever things stuck on the front of a suburban mother's refrigerator.

Fortunately, there is a solution. It's kind of complicated and it's not authorized by Nintendo, but it will bring some much-needed variety to your home screen. Allow me to demonstrate...

Note the image of my character Byron pasted on the front of the folder on the top of the screen. That used to be a power-up mushroom, but I used a program called 3DS Badge Tool to change the graphic, because I needed a bear on my home screen more than fungus. It's actually a little more involved than I'm making it sound, but I won't bore you with the details... just know that a badge requires two images, a graphic and a shape. The graphic is what you see on the front of the badge, and the shape is the metal on the back.

Once a badge has been successfully redesigned and loaded into your 3DS system memory, you can either pin it to the front of your home menu, or better, set it on one of your folders. The initials used by default don't tell you what's inside those folders, but a custom-designed badge like this sure does!

There you go! Much better than a cryptic "G." 

(In case you were wondering, that theme isn't official either, featuring a Mr. Driller image by my friend MomoDriller. Thanks for that, Momo!)

Speaking of Mr. Driller, here's something else you can do with custom badges...

Don't expect to find much in that
rabbit's skull, Susumu.
Not useful in the least, but fun! One wonders why Mr. Driller and other third-party titles aren't officially available in the Nintendo Badge Arcade. The app has been available in Japan for over a year... heaven knows Nintendo has had plenty of opportunities to make it happen. Shake some hands, sign some contracts. Just get the licenses already!

But it's probably not too tough to figure out why badge design has been made strictly hands-off for users. For every 3DS owner who would adorn their screens with family-friendly sprites, there would be two more who would do something like this...

What can I say? I was weak. And that episode of Larry Wilmore was funny.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Get It While It's, Uh, There.

Just a quickie for the night... Best Buy is selling the Playstation TV for twenty dollars right now, including free shipping. You'll have to supply your own game controller and (stupidly priced) memory card, but if you've already got those things and a handful of digital games purchased on the PSN store, it's a pretty good deal. Don't expect it to last very long at that price, though.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Thin Line Between Love and Hate: Nintendo Badge Arcade

When forced to make a choice between keeping homebrew emulators on my New 3DS XL or losing them all so I could play some cheesy crane game, well... it wasn't much of a choice at all. I was prepared to keep an older version of the 3DS firmware on my system, until I discovered that I couldn't access any of Nintendo's online services until I installed the update. That meant that I'd not only miss out on the Nintendo Badge Arcade, but the eShop, updates to previously purchased games, and Miiverse as well. I could scarcely imagine the 3DS experience without Nintendo's art-centric social network, so I swallowed hard and downloaded the latest firmware. So long, RetroArch. It was fun while it lasted...

Fortunately, since I had the foresight to update IronHax beforehand, I didn't lose anything important. I could still get online with my 3DS and play games from nearly a dozen other systems. I could also give Nintendo Badge Arcade a thorough evaluation, and decide once and for all if it deserved the hatred I piled on it in a previous blog entry.

Where's the option for "Hell no?"
And the answer is... well, I'm still not sure. As mentioned earlier, the Badge Arcade takes real money for virtual prizes, and you can see the potential for abuse a mile away. Free training sessions fill the player with misplaced confidence, and badges are tantalizingly placed, giving the impression that they can be earned with the one or two free plays offered each day. Badge Arcade uses carnival psychology to play you like a fiddle... you'll walk in thinking you're too smart to fall for its manipulation, then walk out with a puzzled look on your face and two less dollars in your bank account. I've already lost four bucks to the Badge Arcade over the last couple of days... one can only imagine the financial havoc a child could wreck after borrowing, or "borrowing," his parents' credit cards to play this.

Easier than it looks.
On the other hand, the Badge Arcade's crane games are legitimately fun and challenging, pairing realistic physics with a 2D perspective that opens to door to strategies that wouldn't be possible in real life. For instance, some stages include large boxes that block access to the rest of the prizes. The solution is to tip the box over by nicking its edge with the left pincer of the claw. The box tumbles into a nearby chute, and may even take a few badges along for the ride. Other stages replace the crane with a hammer or bombs, adding variety and rudimentary puzzle-solving to the gameplay. The Badge Arcade has been dismissed by some critics (particularly real-life-Cartman Jim Sterling) as a cash grab devoid of any meaningful substance, but it's clear that careful thought was put into the design of its levels.

Back to the less generous hand. The badges don't have much practical purpose... they're just digital bling, and they're awkward to use. Launcher icons for applications can't replace the standard, boring ones, and other badges exist to either mark folders or clutter the interface. The host of the Badge Arcade, a smartly-dressed pink rabbit, loves to talk, and lives to promote Nintendo products with all the transparent enthusiasm of a used car salesman. Hey, you're already trying to sell me credits for your crane games, but sure, I'll sit through a Pokemon advertisement too. Maybe you can push a Delfino Island time-share presentation on me while you're at it! Putz. I've found that half the entertainment of the Nintendo Badge Arcade is mocking its mascot on Miiverse.

Oh yeah, then there's that other thing. The badge selection changes every couple of days, so the prizes you want may quickly be replaced by ones you don't. Nintendo's younger fans seemed pretty excited about the debut of Pokemon badges, but as a member of Generation X, I just didn't give a damn about them. I'd love to get my hands on some of the game console pixel art offered when the arcade opened, but those badges were taken out of the rotation days before I arrived, and it's anyone's guess as to when they'll be back. If there was a more appealing selection of merchandise, including badges based on third-party games like Mega Man, I'd be more inclined to spend money on the crane games, but that may never happen.

All things considered, the best advice I can give regarding the Nintendo Badge Arcade is "approach with caution." There's fun to be had if you can play it in moderation, but plenty of misery for those who can't control themselves. And since Nintendo designed this game to break the willpower of those who play it, you'd be wise not to overestimate your self-control. Keep a tight budget and only stop by when your favorite badges are available, because the money you'll spend here adds up quickly.

(Images taken from Miiverse.)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

We Don't Need No Stinkin' Badges!

A quick update on Read Only Memories. I picked up copies for a couple of friends, and one of them, a guy I've known for years and whose opinion I trust, did grumble that there was too much social commentary and not enough of a focus on Turing, your robotic operating buddy. I'm not sure I agree, but since he's finished the game and I'm only an hour into it, it's entirely possible that my opinion will change. 

Then again, I have a couple of other friends who expressed similar frustrations with Undertale, complaining that the storyline is too rigid and that you're buried in guilt if you don't play the game exactly as the developer intended. The vast majority of people who own the game don't see things that way, claiming that Undertale is an emotional powerhouse and one of the most refreshing RPGs they've played in years. I haven't played that game at all, and I've got no idea which side I'll take in this debate when I finally do. However, one thing I can say for sure is that it's going to take a hell of a lot for Undertale to live up to the past six months of hype. (And it'll take a gallon of brain bleach to flush out the memories of all that fan art of Toriel with the really huge boobs. But I digress.)

Anyway, let's get down to brass tacks. Nintendo recently released a lot of tantalizing information about upcoming games and downloadable content, but I'm more concerned about what they WON'T be giving us. Indie programmers have demonstrated over the last couple of months that the New 3DS has the muscle to handle Super NES and Game Boy Advance emulation, and that's with security measures which prevent them from accessing the full power of the system. These games might even work on older 3DS models with official development tools. But what does Nintendo give us instead?

This dink, and his carnival of sadness known as the Nintendo Badge Arcade. You pay this carrot-munching vermin real money to get fake pins that you can stick all over the screen of your 3DS. Whee, much more fun than playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Tournament Fighters! Or Marvel vs. Capcom. Or Mega Turrican. Or Bonk's Revenge. Or the thousands of other games you can run using the RetroArch suite of emulators.

Look, I know. I could play most of these games on my PSP, without the hassle of circumventing Nintendo's constant firmware updates. But they look so much better on the New 3DS XL display, and play so much better with Nintendo's circle pad. Beyond that, I've purchased dozens of games on the Nintendo eShop. I'm legally entitled to them, and I should have the right to play them when and where I please. Sony understands this, letting me download PSP games on its successor the Vita, and play PSOne games on nearly every damn thing they make. Now that it's been proven the New 3DS has the juice to emulate games for Nintendo's legacy systems, why can't we legally play them there?

Or maybe we should let all that potential go to waste and just be happy with a pink rabbit.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Making the Case for Read Only Memories

Sometimes I just don't understand people. Recently, a game called Read Only Memories was sold on Indie Gala alongside five other titles for an insultingly low price. The extra games were a nice bonus, but I just wanted the point-and-click adventure that was getting rave reviews from all my friends. It's a science-fiction tale with a strong Blade Runner influence, 16-bit graphics reminiscent of the EGA era of personal computers, a suitably synthy '80s soundtrack, and a globe-headed robot sidekick! What's not to like?

Heh, exposure. What writer HASN'T
heard that one before?
I guess the lesson here is never underestimate the nit-picky power of the internet, because someone somewhere found something to complain about in Read Only Memories. Amidst all the praise for the game were some hostile reviews from Steam curators, calling it a nested doll of political correctness, extraneous pronouns, and furries. (Wait, what's wrong with furries...?) I dismissed the hostility as another baseless hatchet job against writer Jenn Frank, who was peripherally involved with the game's design and who has endured constant harassment from dorks since that whole GamerGate mess started last year.

As it turns out, there was some small grain of truth buried under the ton of crap squeezed out by the game's detractors. Read Only Memories was spearheaded by the organizers of GaymerX, an electronic entertainment convention designed especially for the LGBT community. The game was created to bring the same gender and sexual diversity to this testosterone-drenched hobby as the convention, so you could honestly say that Read Only Memories has an agenda. Hell if I could notice one for the hour I played it, though.

Could you not? We're rather attached.
Look, I get pretty angry when people try to push their views on me. It's ended friendships, and it convinced me to make a hasty retreat from Tumblr, a social networking site known for its political activism (and extremism). However, I never got the impression that Read Only Memories remotely resembled propaganda. All I noticed was the overall quality of the design, and the sharp writing that pokes holes in some overly familiar science-fiction tropes. Mention Asimov's three laws of robotics and your android partner Turing explains that he's too advanced to be bound by them, instead explaining that society's boundaries are what keeps him from, say, tearing the arms off any smug humans who happen to be standing nearby. (Really, Turing is harmless! I'm just convinced he's got Robo-Asperger's.)

Yes, you can choose your preferred pronoun near the start of the game, and yes, some characters reject he and she as descriptors, but Read Only Memories is set in the future. There are cybernetic enhancements, genetic engineering, borderline sapient robots, and fifty years of social progress. Humanity has expanded far beyond its original definition... why wouldn't the pronouns of the time reflect this? Beyond that, why would it even matter to you when "he" and "she" are the first pronouns you're given when you're asked to describe yourself?

This is a face you can trust. Even if
it's just projected on a glass ball.
Look, you can get hung up on these minor and unintrusive details, or sit back and enjoy one of the better games in an underrepresented genre. This very straight, very gender-binary sci-fi geek found plenty to like about Read Only Memories, and you likely will as well if you give it a chance. But if you'd rather reject it on the advice of some YouTube pseudo-celebrity fighting a misguided war against "political correctness," hey, it's your loss.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Yet Strangely Compelling: Mega Zone

You ever run into a video game that you were pretty sure wasn't great, yet had an inexplicable hold on you all the same? For me, Konami's Mega Zone is one of those unhealthy addictions. It's largely derivative of better games and frustrating enough to turn me into a raging volcano of expletives, yet when I see the arcade cabinet in a bowling alley or laundromat, you'd better believe one of my quarters is going to end up in its stomach.

"Feed me, Seymour!"
(image from KLOV)
Anyway. Mega Zone is one of the titles from Konami's curly K period, before it went on to greater fame as a console game publisher and decades before it threw its reputation away on fitness clubs and pachinko. Back in 1983, Namco's Xevious was hugely popular in Japanese arcades, so it's not surprising that Mega Zone tightly clutches its coattails, offering the same vertically scrolling shoot 'em up action. However, there are few wrinkles to the gameplay worth exploring...

◦ The sleek Solvalou in Namco's game has been replaced with an amphibious tank. It skims over terrain and across vast bodies of water at the same speed, which is always just slightly slower than you'd like it to move. This makes it extremely important to react to enemies as they appear, rather than trying to dodge them at the last second. Trust me, you'll lose more tanks that way.

◦ Tiny brown diamonds litter the playfield. They're not worth much on their own, but collect thirteen and you'll find a capsule marked with the word "MEG." Grabbing this merges your tank with one of your remaining lives, creating the mighty MegaTank. The MegaTank has triple the firepower of the standard model, making it critical for surviving the later areas, but it's just as slow and a bit chunkier. Worst of all, getting clipped by an enemy or one of its shots returns the tank to its original form while robbing you of the life you used to upgrade it. You're telling me I had to grab a small fortune in gems AND sacrifice a tank just to power up, AND it's nowhere near as cool as the quintet of ships in Terra Cresta? Dirty pool, Konami.

Mucha Lucha.
◦ There's a weird ocular theme throughout Mega Zone. Every couple of screens, you'll run across a metal-reinforced eyeball that scans the playfield for intruders. Nail the eye in its exposed pupil and it dies, leaving behind a small pink tear. Grab that and everything else on the screen dies, too. Later in the game, you'll find larger eyes that fire laser rings, and at the end of your journey, there's a luchador mask which chokes the screen with bouncing eyeballs. The ping-ponging peepers remain on the screen even after you've destroyed the mask, a parting insult from the game's only boss. 

◦ Mega Zone's got some of the most unbelievably aggravating enemies you've seen in a top-down shooter from the early 1980s. Sure, it seems easy enough at first, but the stationary cannons and easily dispatched ships are joined by madly spiraling clusters of orbs, zigzagging fighters that love to unload missiles in your face, and flowers that reach the bottom of the screen, only to make a hasty U-turn and lodge themselves in your colon. Brick walls spring up out of nowhere to block your shots, and rolling meteors hone in on you with lethal accuracy... and that's just the first half of the game!

The game isn't as polished as Xevious, and it makes its contempt for the player obvious almost from the start. Maybe that's what makes it so addictive, though. Like the rigged carnival game or the dunk tank clown who points out you've had one corn dog too many, Mega Zone lights a vengeful fire within you that makes you desperate to conquer it, no matter how unlikely that may be. Best of all, it's been playable in MAME for at least a decade now, so it won't cost you anything... except maybe your pride.