Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How Sweet It Is!

It's been a while since I've posted, so I might as well take care of that while waiting for my homemade caramel to finish cooking. It's really not hard, y'know! You just drop a can of sweetened condensed milk into a pot of water, set it to boil, then turn down the heat to low and let it simmer for around three hours. Make sure there's always water over the top of the can, and...

Okay, okay, I'm stalling. I've got a larger hard drive in that Xbox now, and have been cramming every emulator I can find into it. One harsh truth has revealed itself in the process, though... no matter what game console or set top box you use, there's always going to be a flaw that keeps it just shy of perfection. For the Android TV I was using earlier, it was limited storage and the fact that nearly every emulator costs money. The Xbox comes closer to hitting that entertainment sweet spot than most, but without an HDMI port, the graphics in emulators suffer slightly. There may be options to sharpen up the picture in MAMEdOX and Final Burn Legends, but nothing I've tried gets rid of the blur entirely. I'll keep working at it.

Ow ow ow my hands ow ow ow
(image from YouTube)
Speaking of the 'box, I've been sampling a few of its games. You remember all those complaints about the awkward control in GunValkyrie? Yep, they were right on the money. My hands still ache from squeezing triggers and pushing in thumbsticks for the past hour. I get the impression that Sega was trying to offer the same nimble movement that Capcom had in Product No. 03, but couldn't make it fit in the framework of what is essentially a mech game. Twitchy camera control and unreliable targeting add to the frustration... there were far too many times where Kelly either wouldn't lock onto visible targets, or couldn't find them at all. I might come back to the game later, but I'm sure I could do better.

On the plus side, I tried the unreleased Xbox version of The Red Star, and enjoyed the game a lot more than I had when I first tried it on the Playstation 2. I'm guessing that I gave up on the game after getting soundly thrashed by the first stage. However, once you've muscled your way through the prologue and gotten the hang of the play mechanics, The Red Star reveals itself as a fairly diverting blend of beat 'em ups and bullet hell shooters. The challenge comes from juggling the two styles of gameplay, striking from a safe distance with your guns, then switching to melee combat to disarm shielded enemies. It's not the first time someone's tried to mix gunplay with CQC, but it works better here than it had in Capcom's quickly forgotten Cannon Spike.

Ooh, ooh! Caramel's almost done! I'll catch you all later. Apologies for the long wait between blog posts.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

It's All Downhill from Here

First on the menu, a guy named Arian Kordi has created an oekaki site called Closedverse, which mimics the style and some of the functionality of Miiverse. You can't post screenshots directly from your 3DS, but there's more flexibility overall, with users posting video clips and full color drawings along with the usual black and white sketches. I don't have an account on the site yet, but I have a feeling that it's going to become my methadone once my withdrawal from Miiverse kicks in after November 8th.

Now that we're done with the appetizer, it's time for the main course! After hearing all the praise heaped onto SSX 3, I decided to pick up a copy of this popular snowboarding title for myself. All that hype is not without merit... the game looks gorgeous in spite of its age, with rolling hills spilling out into the distance and tiny specks of light sparkling on nearby mounds of snow. It also doesn't take itself too seriously, which is refreshing in this increasingly grim era of gaming. There's just one problem, though...

I am completely terrible at SSX 3. I couldn't even say that I'm all thumbs, because that suggests some degree of skill, however little. I am no thumbs at this game. It's like I'm playing SSX with my tongue. I can't even explain why I'm doing so poorly, because I've had previous experience with the Tony Hawk series. I'm hardly a tournament caliber THPS player, but I've got a grasp of the basics and can string together a few combos.

Problem is, SSX 3 isn't Tony Hawk. The techniques that worked in Tony Hawk don't always work here, and the ones that do have been reassigned to different button combinations. The board press serves a similar function to Tony Hawk's manual, adding to the multiplier of a combo while keeping it active. However, instead of tapping up-down or down-up on the D-pad, you briefly hold up or down on the right thumbstick. I mean, hey, you might as well use every input on the gamepad, right?

It's complicated. Seriously.
(image from YouTube)
Tricks are also counter-intuitive... instead of the fire and forget approach of Tony Hawk, you've got to hold buttons down briefly to make the trick count. You can "pre-wind" moves while you're on the ground, making them activate faster... but, uh, why is that even necessary? All these little changes leave you with an experience that seems familiar, yet really isn't once you get past the superficial similarities. It's like learning to ride a bike, then being expected to go a few miles on a unicycle.

Then there's the whole issue of downward momentum. With Tony Hawk, you're almost always moving, but you've got control of exactly where you'll go next. SSX gives you one direction, down, and while you can alter your course to some degree, you can't head back up the mountain if you've missed a rail, or a hidden item, or that all-important ramp which will let you tack a few extra tricks onto your combo. There's little room for error, and the punishment for making a mistake can be so severe that you'll have to restart a race or a heat to have any hope of victory. As the kind of gamer who hates being forced to repeat a mission over and over until it's done just right, that doesn't sit well with me.

I suppose all of this wouldn't be so frustrating if SSX 3 had been forgettable. I could play it, decide that it wasn't for me, and move on with my life. The problem is that I'm pretty sure it's as good as everyone says, but it's also as dense and impenetrable as a lead wall. I love SSX, but it doesn't love me.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

One Step Beyond

"I don't remember much, buddy, and you're no looker!"

Er, pardon my absence. While I've been gone, I've been thinking about a few things... like how well the original Xbox has aged in the sixteen years since its release. Most of the games spread across multiple formats looked best on the 'box, and its exclusives looked amazing, regardless of their other faults. Let's take a look at a couple of those games, shall we?

This is Tao Feng, developed by Mortal Kombat co-creator John Tobias. I never got a feel for the flow of this game, but it's hard to deny the quality of the graphics. The characters ripple with muscles and move gracefully through a variety of interactive playfields which offer more than just pretty scenery. Throw an opponent into a wooden pallet and it shatters; drop them to the ground and the floor is left broken from the impact. You could find the same collateral damage in the cult classic Phantom Dust, with players tearing the environment apart while lobbing beams and explosives at each other. It helps bring the player into the action when they're put in a tangible location, rather than a well decorated box.

The Xbox was Microsoft's first game console, giving its games a pioneering spirit that was rare on systems from more experienced competitors. There was a lot of fresh IP, and a lot of experimental ideas... the kind that were just as likely to stumble as soar. Crimson Skies was one of the titles that worked, a flight combat sim set in a fantasy world inspired by the 1930s. I never made it very far in this one, but I liked what I saw, and I'm eager to come back to it. I may even want to give its seafaring counterpart Blood Wake another chance, even though I don't recall enjoying that one nearly as much.

Xbox games are still pretty cheap, and there's plenty of titles I either haven't played in a while or haven't tried at all. I have a feeling I'm going to love catching up with this machine after all these years.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Break-Up

I've made a horrible mistake. About the Wii U, I mean. Have you ever been in a relationship which you're extremely desperate to make work? Everybody tells you that your partner is bad news, and maybe you know that too, deep down inside, but you ignore your gut instincts and keep trying to jam that square peg into a round hole. "Things will change!," you shout, hoping to convince yourself more than your friends. "You don't know them the way I do! We can be happy together if I put in some effort, I just know it!"

Then comes the turning point; that chance encounter which breaks the spell of delusion and makes you realize that the object of your affections wasn't worth the effort. That moment came for me when I turned on my Wii U for the first time in several months. I hated all the waiting... waiting for the system to boot, waiting for games to start, waiting to switch to the Wii mode. I hated the gamepad, which felt less like a controller and more like an anchor tied around my wrist. I hated Splatoon's infuriating last boss DJ Octavius, who took all the happy memories I had of the game, tossed them into a dumpster, and set them on fire. I hated that Nintendo had the temerity to sell us a three hundred dollar console which on its best day could perform at the level of the twelve year old Xbox 360. (Now you're playing with power... minimal power!)

The only conclusion I could come to from this experience was that the Wii U was a steaming turd, pushed out of the colon of a game company which let the success of the Wii and DS go to its head. Most gamers were smart enough to recognize this pile of hubris for what it was and walked around it. As for me... well, I'll be cleaning bits of Wii U from the bottom of my shoes for a few years. My sincere apologies to anyone who I convinced to follow in my footsteps. Also, try an old toothbrush soaked in soapy water... it works wonders.