Monday, February 29, 2016

One in a Million

Well, more like one in 1461, but I digress. I figured Leap Day would be as good a time as any to update this blog... let's just hope I don't wait until the next Leap Day to post another entry. Considering how much I've been neglecting this journal, it wouldn't be that much of a surprise...

Anyway! It's almost spring, and I thought now would be a pretty good time to dive back into Splatoon. I've had this family-friendly shooter for months, but I haven't spent any serious time with it, and figured it was time that changed. Let me just say, I'm enjoying this a lot more than I'd expected. Unlike the vast majority of games in this genre, it's just good, clean fun, accented with vivid color and mercifully free of the stress that voice chat would bring to the experience. 

It seems the Japanese agree with me... Splatoon has been hugely successful in that country, despite its well-documented aversion to online shooters. Every time I jump into a Turf War, half the other players have their names spelled out in katakana or hiragana. It doesn't change the experience at all, since Nintendo's servers are fast enough to make it seem like the other players are next door rather than half a world away, but the game's overseas popularity is nevertheless worth mentioning.

Another thing I'd like to point out is how streamlined and intuitive Splatoon is compared to other shooters. You won't spend a lot of time juggling your inventory, because you choose your weapons before each match and because the ink you spray is so incredibly versatile. The ability to dive into it for a quick escape makes your Inkling more maneuverable than the barrel-chested brutes from Gears of War, and opens the door to a variety of tricky obstacles in the single player mode. It's liberating to be able to navigate each devilishly designed stage without being chained to the pause menu or Ratchet and Clank's slightly kludgy weapons wheel.

Nintendo needed a new franchise to keep itself relevant in the 21st century, and Splatoon does just that, introducing a popular style of gameplay to the Wii U without forsaking the quirky, color-drenched atmosphere that draws players to Nintendo games. It doesn't remotely resemble the company's past hits, but Splatoon nevertheless deserves its place among them... and I'm eager to see where Nintendo takes it in the coming years.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Eternal Struggle

Another day, another 3DS system update... and another howl of frustration from yours truly. I'm once again forced to choose between the 16-bit game emulation the system should have had officially since the new model launched last year, or online features like Miiverse that define the 3DS experience. What to do, what to do?

Well, I'll tell you what I wanted to do. I thought picking up a MOGA Pocket controller and turning my old LG Tribute into a handheld emulation station would finally free me from having to worry about Nintendo's vexing system updates. That... didn't work out so well. The MOGA Pocket was too cramped and uncomfortable to use (when it felt like syncing with my phone, anyway) and trying to flash new firmware on the Tribute to free some of its limited limited storage was a crashing failure. Like, a "stuck on the boot screen forever" failure.

So now I'm back at square one, trying to figure out a comfortable way to emulate arcade classics on the go. The PSP is suitable for that purpose, but not ideal... not with that lackluster D-pad, anyway. The Vita is a little better, but it's got the same problem as the 3DS, with constant firmware updates blocking access to unlicensed software. An Android device is a definite maybe, but prepping them for use as a game system has proven difficult, and there are so many of them that I don't know for sure which one is safe to buy. I sure as hell don't want to end up with another CX-919. Then I'd have to shop for a game controller, and I'd hate to be stuck with another paperweight like this MOGA Pocket.

It's a first world problem for sure... but it's nevertheless a frustrating one.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Androids are Revolting!

Insert flushing noise.
(picture from LG)
...and I mean that in every possible sense of the term. I just lobotomized my LG Tribute last night while attempting to flash a custom ROM. Evidently that's a crime punishable by death, except it was my phone that received the sentence. Now it's languishing in my junk tech drawer alongside a dead hard drive, a MiniDisc player, and the Droid X it happened to replace.

I mean, it's not a huge deal. I purchased an LG Destiny from Wal-Mart when it was just twenty bucks, and it's actually got slightly better specs than the phone I just bricked. Nevertheless, I had plans for that Tribute, and it's galling that they were never fully realized. After this and the CX-919 fiasco from last December, I really, really should know better than to get too deep under the hood of an Android device. At least when you're hacking a game system, the experience is pretty consistent. Because there are so many different models, tinkering with an Android device is like a box of Palmer's chocolates... you never know what you're going to get, and you usually wish you hadn't bothered.

"Give me my story mode, balvan!"
(image from Polygon)
What else can I complain about...? Oh yeah, Street Fighter V just shipped, but without any single player options worth mentioning. There's no arcade mode, no versus CPU mode, and absolutely no fun for a hermit like myself who doesn't like to compete online. It's possible that Capcom will address these omissions later with patches, but if it's all the same to them, I'll just hold onto my money until the game is finished. It's not even the first time a fighting game has shipped with a dearth of single player options (I'm looking at you, Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny), which strikes me as a worrying trend.

On the plus side (and there is a plus side to this post, honest!), Sega is currently giving away three games on Steam, including the surprisingly entertaining Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit, and I would recommend them all for the price of free-ninety-free. Yes, even Golden Axe. I'd suggest you, er, hop on this deal before it expires.

Friday, February 12, 2016

All the Ladies in the House Say... SOMETHING!

It's easy to forget this when you're the intended audience, but every once in a while, you'll be reminded just how insular the video game industry can be. Case in point: Sony just offered a flash sale for Valentine's Day, with such female-friendly titles as Hard Corps: Uprising, Far Cry 4, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, and Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon. Wait, this was supposed to be a Valentine's Day sale, right?

When I voiced those complaints on CheapAssGamer, they were quickly dismissed, with one user simply stating, "No dudebro games equals no profit for Sony." However, that argument fails to take into account that Sony (and Microsoft) haven't even tried to court an audience beyond the mostly male "hardcore" crowd. They're there, though. They were there to make Nintendo's Wii a big success, due in part because no other console manufacturer wanted to market to them or address their concerns. Now that the Wii has faded away and its successor has fumbled its baton, it feels like companies are eager to return to the status quo of games that embrace a single demographic while pushing everyone else away.

Make a game system for girls,
but no games for them to play!
Brilliant move, Sony!
(image from Amazon)
It's very easy to say that game companies don't market to women because women won't buy their products. But perhaps it's more accurate to flip that sentence... women don't buy video games because game companies (Nintendo excluded) don't make an effort to appeal to them. Judging from this recent flash sale, it doesn't even seem like Sony wants their money, or their involvement in the hobby. 

I don't even know why I should care. I'm firmly in the bullseye of Sony's target audience; white, male, and heavily invested in the hobby. But I've gotta tell you, even I get tired of the same heavily distilled sludge that pours out of the video game industry year after year. And I wouldn't mind some fresh perspectives... not necessarily from frustrated feminists like Anita Sarkeesian, but ordinary women who would really enjoy video games if the industry didn't make it so hard for them. 

I sold that cheap PSP Go I purchased last month to a female friend, at cost and loaded with software, just to get her more involved with video games. I was happy to do it, but I can't offer that assistance to everyone... and Nintendo can't be the only company that reaches out to the thousands of gamers outside the traditional audience. Companies like Sony and Microsoft are going to have to put down the machine gun and pick up the slack.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Best Mario Kart Games You've Never Played

Ha ha! Finally! After what seemed like an eternity of fruitless hacking, I've got all the characters and stages in Def Jam: Fight for New York... and I didn't have to wade through the obnoxious story mode to claim them! Did I ever mention how much I hated having to unlock everything in games from the early 21st century with tedious busywork? Because I really, really hated it. (Not that having to pay for all that extra content is an improvement, mind.)

Anyway! Speaking of old GameCube titles, I wanted to talk about a couple that probably slipped under your radar. Like the Dreamcast and Playstation, the GameCube had an arcade counterpart with nearly identical hardware. That machine was called the Triforce, and it was the exclusive home of two Mario Kart games. The Mario Kart Arcade GP games were rare in arcades and prohibitively expensive to play, so until recently, you would have been extremely lucky to experience them for yourself.

Fortunately, Nintendont has made it a whole lot easier. This "virtual machine" lets you play GameCube games on later Nintendo systems, but it's also compatible with the small handful of titles released for the Triforce... and it works beautifully with Mario Kart Arcade GP and its sequel. Here, have a look for yourself!

Yep, that's Pac-Man. Namco worked on the two Mario Kart arcade games, so you kind of had to expect his addition to the cast. The sequel was released after Namco became Bandai-Namco, and adds Mametchi from the Tomogotchi series as a racer. No, he can't throw swirly turds at his opponents to slow them down.

What's most striking about the two Mario Kart arcade games is how gorgeous they look a decade after their respective debuts. They're faster and even prettier than Mario Kart: Double Dash, and their graphics make a stronger impression than the rather plain and flat visuals in Mario Kart Wii... a game which I'll remind you was running on more powerful hardware.

Unfortunately, the two games have a few not-inconsequential issues. Being originally designed for a steering wheel means you can't hold down the analog stick and throw items behind you to trip up the other racers. There are plenty of items available, but they're also plenty strange, with a pan replacing the traditional green shell and a Boo who clings onto your wheel, making it heavier. (I don't know how a ghost can make anything heavier, but eh, just go with it.) The sequel also adds unwanted color commentary, delivered by the world's most enthusiastic android. You'll frequently hear lines like "PAC-MAN! throws an item! WADDIO! now has square wheels! PAC-MAN! takes the lead!," making you want to reach for either the mute button or the announcer's tin-plated throat.

Despite these irritations, the two Mario Kart Arcade GP games are very much worth experiencing, and it's a shame Nintendo hasn't released home versions. They run on a Wii U with just a little bit of hacking... how hard could it be to make an official home port?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Ironfall: Invasion, or What Did You Expect for Free?

Like that other 3DS release Cubic Ninja, Ironfall: Invasion would have been quickly forgotten were it not for an exploit which opened the door to homebrews and other hacker hijinx. But Nintendo wasn't having any of it, and patched over IronHax in a recent firmware update. Now the game won't run at all until you download a fixed version which firmly nails that backdoor shut.

I never actually played Ironfall: Invasion just to, uh, play Ironfall: Invasion. However, now that it serves no other purpose, I figured that I might as well give it a shot. After all, the developers were kind enough to give it away. It was the least I could do, right?

Turns out the least I could do was a lot more than this game deserved.

Ironfall: Invasion by VD Dev is the 3DS's answer to Gears of War, but that was a gap in the system's library that really didn't need to be filled. The machine has neither the horsepower nor the audience for this genre, and the designers didn't have the skill or the inspiration to make it work. Nobody seems to know what they're doing or why they're doing it, and that ennui quickly spreads to the player, who wonders why they bothered to play it.

Visit our three star hotel, where the marble
is distractingly shiny and all the fixtures
are invulnerable to bullets!

Reviewers have described Ironfall as a tech demo in search of a game, and you'll see what they mean when you're dropped in front of a ritzy Indonesian hotel. It looks pretty slick despite the low resolution of the 3DS, but it doesn't take long before you get the nagging feeling that something is very wrong with the presentation. The playfield is disconcertingly empty and the heroes have a dead-eyed stare which makes you think they'd rather be anywhere else. Frankly, who could blame them?

Then the enemies arrive... not hulking monsters covered in armor and spikes, but the Dyx, androids with bucket-shaped heads. After absorbing way too much of your ammo, the unfortunately named robots explode into flaming chunks. You can't target specific areas to weaken them or just for the sadistic fun of blowing off limbs... it's the same death animation, every time.

The men are covered in battle armor.
The women... wear considerably less.
This, of course, is assuming you can even target your foes. The New 3DS and its dreadful C-stick won't make that easy. You aim with the nub (at least in theory), but the reticule doesn't respond to light touches, making you dig into the side of the C-stick with your fingernail and pull it toward (and past) your target. Granted, the Dyx are as indifferent about their jobs as Ironfall's developers, but they do take a lot of damage and tend to flank you from all sides. You can turn off the C-stick, but the touchscreen doesn't work much better for aiming, and you'll sacrifice the legitimately useful ZL and ZR buttons in the process.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that third-person shooters aren't my thing, but even a newb like myself can tell that Ironfall: Invasion doesn't measure up to its competitors... yes, even the ones on handhelds. I had issues with Killzone Mercenary on the Vita, but compared to Ironfall it shines like a diamond, with three times the detail and technique. The much-maligned Vita port of Borderlands 2 completely blows Ironfall away, even with its knack for crashing at the worst possible moments. Hell, I'd go so far as to say that Shadowgun for Android phones and Resistance: Retribution for the last generation PSP are superior to this. All of those games cost money and Ironfall doesn't, but if this is what free gets you, why bother?