Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Master at Work

I like video games. I'm just not good at video games. Sure, I can hold my own against another mid-tier player in a versus fighter like Darkstalkers or Street Fighter Alpha, but I don't have the patience or the mad skillz to make it through something especially long and challenging.

I'll tell you, though, it's a lot of fun watching someone who does. Take this playthrough of the fiercely tough Sega arcade title Shinobi, for instance. YouTube user "Sub-Zero Lin Kuei" storms through the first two missions using close quarters combat against the mooks, and even has the nads to kick towering samurai Ken-Oh in the face! It's a beautiful thing. Shinobi used to regularly humiliate me when I was a teenager, but this guy has the game wrapped around his finger. Just... just watch.

The Master System version of Shinobi had a life bar, but Sub-Zero doesn't need one. He makes it through the playthrough without losing a life and with limited use of the "ninja magic" that scrubs the screen of foes. Heaven knows I was using it every chance I got.

So yeah, before I go, I should probably mention that there's a summer sale on PSN over the next two weeks. You can get dozens of games at steep discounts, including Street Fighter V, Grim Fandango Remastered, Mega Man Legends, and... uh... Monster Monpiece. (Don't get that.) It's a nice complement to Steam's summer picnic sale, and a hell of a lot better than what Microsoft is offering this week.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Glimpse of Greatness...?

You remember that Playstation 4? Well, I got it working, using a trick I found on the iFixit web site. It's one of those odd folk remedies that you can't believe actually works, yet it does... for maybe an hour. Then the system shuts right back off, possibly in the middle of a lengthy download. Evidently this is a common problem for this system, and without the cash to get it properly repaired I'm just going to have to live with it.

Then again, I could just play games on my PC, and with the Steam Summer sale in full swing it'd be a good time for it. Hundreds of games are currently discounted, and will remain so until July 4th, America's Independence Day (as opposed to June 24th, which is now Great Britain's "Oh God what have we DOOOONE?!" day). I'm personally thinking about Dark Souls, as it includes all the DLC content and with the right patch, offers higher quality torture than its Xbox 360 counterpart.

What else? Mighty No. 9, as predicted by pundits months ago, turned out kinda crappy. It's getting average ratings across the board, with reviewers claiming that the game feels half-hearted and unpolished. Hey, what did you expect for four million dollars? On the plus side... actually, I'm not feeling very plus side right now. I'd better stop for the day before I go full Morton's with my saltiness.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Live and Learn

Well, one would hope, anyway.

The Playstation 4 I bought on eBay, alas, appears to be a dud. There's no picture, no sound, and no access to the safe mode... just a blue light on the top of the system that strobes at an agonizingly sluggish pace. So unless I plan to host a rave party for sloths, it doesn't seem like I'll be getting much use out of it.

Go, sloths! Go sloths!
...uh, are you going, sloths?
(image from Pinterest)
Outwardly, I'm frustrated that I may have flushed a hundred dollars (plus shipping!) down the crapper. This PS4 was bought as-is with no returns accepted, and it may not be feasible to get it fixed. My options are to either take it to a repair shop in Tucson or ship it to Sony, and either will likely double the initial investment. I've been able to buy busted systems and revive them in the past, but I'm not confident I'll be able to bring this one back to life. It's kind of a downer, walking past that Playstation every day and knowing that it may never be anything more than a rhomboid paperweight.

Deep down inside, however, I'm not that choked up about this. Back in 2006, I was eager to step up to the big leagues of the Xbox 360, but ten years later, buying a current generation console feels like an obligation; something I HAD to do to continue enjoying the hobby, rather than a choice I was happy to make. 

Admittedly, software for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One is getting better... we're starting to see fewer rehashes of last generation games and more titles designed especially for the new systems. I'm especially excited about Horizon Zero Dawn, an upcoming action-adventure title that likely would have been held back by the ten year old technology of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Here's a clip of the game's robot-slaying warrior princess in action, in case you missed the reveal at E3:

Yeah, I'd like to play that. But it's probably not going to be out until next year, and I wouldn't have much to tide me over while I waited. There's not a lot on the Playstation 4 that thrills me at the moment... just Street Fighter V (once it's finished, cough) and a handful of indie titles which could just as easily been released for the Playstation 3. Many of these are already available on personal computers, and a few can be played on the significantly cheaper Playstation TV.

Then there's this push toward iterative consoles. If I bought a working Playstation 4, how long is it going to be before I'm nudged into purchasing the next Playstation, and the Playstation after that? If last week's E3 was any indication, maybe a couple of years at best. I've had friends argue that frequent hardware refreshes could benefit early adopters, in the same way that the owner of an older PC or Android phone can still run the majority of software available for those formats. I just wish I could be that optimistic.

The S stands for "sucker."
(image from Microsoft)
Game consoles aren't phones, and they're not personal computers. They're closed source platforms, and competition is limited to three manufacturers, rather than dozens. Yes, Microsoft and Sony are claiming now that you won't need the Playstation Neo or the Xbox Scorpio to remain in the two companies' ecosystems, but details about these high-powered consoles are both elusive and subject to change at any moment. Sony claims the Neo will complement the Playstation 4 rather than replace it, but this suggests separate software libraries for the separate product lines. Microsoft is months from launching a redesigned Xbox One that's smaller and more powerful than the original. That's not even the Scorpio, but a second model of its flagship console with just enough benefits to make owners of the first feel profoundly foolish about their purchase.

Sony and Microsoft are insisting otherwise (for now...) but when the new consoles arrive, who's to say the two companies won't shift the focus to their new products, at the expense of the old ones? Who's to say developers won't take advantage of the advanced technology of the Xbox Scorpio and Playstation Neo, while releasing inferior versions of the same product for the legacy consoles? It's the way the industry has always worked in the past... there's no reason to believe things will be any different now. If Sony and Microsoft have new consoles, you'd better believe they'll find ways to incentivize a purchase.

So yeah, I feel a little stupid for having bought that Playstation 4. Not just because it didn't work, but because I don't think I'm ready for one that does. Or the systems that will be nipping at its heels.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Digital Dilemma

I try to keep this blog focused on video games, but what happened in Orlando this weekend is incredibly hard to ignore. After a shooter's rampage in a gay nightclub, there are fifty people dead, fifty people bleeding, and at least that many politicians offering phony "thoughts and prayers" when they should be doing their jobs. I'd like to say I expect better from this country, but the fact that I don't honestly believe this is intensely worrying.

If you want to help (and I mean actually help, unlike the aforementioned politicians), you can do that by clicking this link and giving some much-needed money to the survivors of this needless, yet all too familiar tragedy. Thanks.

So yeah, video games. It's not a subject that's first and foremost on my mind, but there was something I've been wanting to discuss for a few days. In the early days of Wheel of Fortune, host Pat Sajak frequently reminded contestants that "once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep." It was a catchphrase that stuck with me long after Wheel abandoned its showcases filled with tacky ceramic dalmatians and Spiegel gift certificates. If you can't keep something and hold it in your hands, why even pretend that you own it?

This mentality left me reluctant to embrace digital distribution, but over a decade after the launch of the Xbox 360 and Steam, I'm starting to come around. What digital distribution lacks in permanence, it more than makes up for in convenience, as illustrated by my move to Arizona a couple of years ago. When I climbed aboard that plane headed for Tucson, there was only so much of my physical collection I could take with me, but all the games I bought on Xbox Live, PSN, and Nintendo's eShop took up no space in my luggage. Having a digital collection meant dozens of my games were available wherever I went, without actually being there.

There's another benefit to buying digitally... once you buy a prize it really is yours to keep. I can't count the number of times I've sold games in my physical collection to stretch my budget, but that's never a temptation with digital because you only own the license, and that can't be transferred to anyone else. Couple that with weekly online sales which drastically undercut retail prices and you've got a way to build a massive library of games that's always at your fingertips.

Well, maybe always. Digital libraries are still relatively new, and nobody knows for sure where their collections will be in the future. When console manufacturers like Sony and Microsoft abandon their old hardware, will players still be able to access the games they've purchased, or will all that software be lost once the servers are shut down? It's a question that's left older players, especially preservationists, on edge. They own cartridge-based games that date back to the '70s and '80s. Will their digital libraries stand the test of time as well? With Sony abandoning backward compatibility and adopting a streaming subscription service to take its place, it's hard to be optimistic about the answer.

So I might come to regret it later, but for now, I'm happy buying my games digitally. Hey, it keeps me from having to get off the couch to swap discs.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Playstation 4: Some Assembly Required

I just bought a Playstation 4 on eBay. Why did I buy a Playstation 4 on eBay? 

Oh yeah, because support for the older consoles has just about dried up. Right, right.

Fun with parallelograms.
(image from some other eBay auction)
Anyway... this was a cheap system at $130, but it was also a, heh, slightly used system. There's no controller, no hard drive, and no working optical drive. On the other hand, the seller tells me that it can play downloaded games, which is about all I use with my current consoles anyway. I won't be playing anything on this Playstation 4 until I get those other two accessories, but I can always pick them up next month.

With E3 and the possibility of a smaller, cheaper Xbox One coming in about a week, maybe this wasn't such a great idea. Microsoft's next- er, current generation system is getting more tempting now that it's got backward compatibility and some tantalizing exclusives. However, the PS4's got its own killer apps, and it's currently the most powerful game machine on the market. (Until the PS4K is released. And the Xbox Scorpio. And maybe the NX too...) With all that in mind, I might as well hop aboard the Playstation 4 train while it's still chugging ahead. I'll let you know how that turns out.

This could ultimately turn out to be a dumb decision, but I can scarcely imagine how it could be any worse than what Microsoft plans to release in the near future. GameSpot and the Tampa Bay Review report that there are Xbox-branded streaming devices in development, including an "Xbox Mini" designed for less demanding games. Because we all know how well that worked out for Sony, right?

Oh wait, I take that back. I was just reminded that the Playstation TV had an extensive library of games at launch, including dozens of hits from the PSOne era. The Xbox Mini... won't. Maybe you want to rethink this one, Microsoft.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mega Man Legacy: Can't Beat the Real Thing

First order of business: boxer Muhammad Ali recently died at the age of 74, adding to the list of legendary celebrities 2016 took from us. I don't know much about the sweet science, and Ali's greatest exploits were a little before my time, but after watching a few clips of the man in action, I understand why his fans respected him so much. I mean, look at this!

image from Talking Time
Ali's opponent is throwing some very solid punches, but the first swing barely brushes his cheek and the rest miss by millimeters. He dodges each blow with the skill normally reserved for a slow-motion scene in a big-budget action flick, except all this is happening in real time and there are no special effects. He was just that good.

Okay, while we're fondly reminiscing about the past, let's talk about Mega Man. Mega Man Legacy Collection is currently available on Nintendo's eShop for ten dollars. That's a damn good deal, considering that you'd have to pay three times that to get all six of its games on Nintendo's Virtual Console service. Plus you'd miss out on a gallery full of box artwork, early character designs, and promotional materials. Plus, if we can be totally honest here, the Virtual Console's emulation of NES games is kind of lacking anyway, with dim, distorted graphics.

That's not a problem with Mega Man Legacy. Its games are presented exactly as you remembered them on the NES, shortcomings included. I just finished the first title in the series, and all the little imperfections that other emulators tend to mask are right here, including the occasional slowdown and the greenish tint to Cutman's stage. Mercifully, there's also the bug where you can hammer the select button while one of your weapons is going through the Yellow Devil, emptying its life bar in seconds. I'm not sure I could beat him these days without it! Hell, I'm not sure I ever have!

Nearly thirty years after its debut, Mega Man has become more than a game... it's a part of history, and a keystone of modern gaming culture. It's crucial to preserve this history as it truly was, rather than how we'd like it to remember it, and the team at Digital Eclipse has done a fantastic job of capturing the full Mega Man experience with this collection.