Monday, December 31, 2018

Another Year in the Bag

Well, that's it for 2018. Hard to believe the year went by so quickly, huh? I'm just disappointed that I wasn't able to make it to sixty-nine posts this year... it's become something of a peculiar tradition for this blog, and I wanted to keep it going, but alas. Maybe I'll have enough to talk about in 2019 to reach that magic number next year, eh?

Anyway. I'm not going to offer a detailed summary of what happened in 2018, since you were there too, but I did want to give you links to The Besties, my favorite articles published on the blog this year. A Twitter user asked people to list all the consoles they've ever owned along with a favorite game for each. I wanted to play along, but since 280 characters wasn't enough to do thirty-five years of gaming justice, I brought my experiences to Kiblitzing instead.

Besties, 1982-1992
Besties, 1993-1999
Besties, 2000-2004
Besties, 2005-2008

Jumping from gaming history to current events, there were a lot of titles released in 2018 threatening to empty my already thin wallet. Soul Calibur VI! Nier Automata! Fire Pro Wrestling World! Fighting EX Layer! Marvel's Spider-Man! Monster Hunter World! Monster Boy in the Cursed Kingdom! It hasn't all been a bowl of 100 point cherries... there have been no end of cheapy cheap plug and play consoles (including a rush job by Sony, of all companies), and Capcom's attempt to inject advertising into Street Fighter V was a facepalm moment worthy of four Star Trek captains. Overall though, I'd say the hobby has been pretty good to us this year. Here's hoping 2019 will treat us even better.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Look Ma, No Drive!

That's distressing. It seems Don Mattrick's mad dream for the Xbox One hasn't been completely extinguished... ExtremeTech and various other sites reported last month that Microsoft is considering a special low-cost model of the Xbox One without an optical disc drive. That would make the system entirely dependent on downloads, which comes pretty close to what Mattrick had in mind for the launch model of the Xbox One over five years ago.

In all fairness, I don't own any discs for this system, and only a small handful for its rival the Playstation 4. Both consoles install games directly to their hard drives no matter how you play them, so why go through that extra cumbersome step of loading in a disc just to prove you own the game? Nevertheless, it's nice to have that drive around to play movies, and for the sake of preservation. If game companies get rid of physical media entirely (and there's every indication the industry is moving in this direction), it's going to be a lot harder to keep a record of the history of this hobby. 

Just look at what happens to games for Android devices... they're literally here today and gone tomorrow at the whim of their publishers. I "own" the Android versions of Mass Effect and Dead Space, but it's become impossible to actually play them, since the games have been "sunsetted" by Electronic Arts and I can't download them to newer Android phones. Are they the best versions of those games? Heh, not by a long shot, but I'd still like to flip the book back a few pages and try them anyway, to see what the designers did right with the limited technology of the time and what they could have done better.

I didn't say it was great! I just said I wanted
to play it again!
It's just tragic to know that a game exists without being able to play it, you know? Even if it kind of sucks. Sometimes that's part of the fun, as was demonstrated by James Rolfe and Matt Matei when they teamed up with former child actor Macaulay Culkin to play the Super NES game The Pagemaster. It's no secret that I dislike Rolfe's alter ego The Angry Video Game Nerd, but he's more palatable when he drops the persona and just examines games honestly, instead of through a shit-stained lens. I'll also admit that there's some sadistic amusement in watching Culkin squirm as he watches a cartoon version of his younger self race through stages, only to be stopped cold by bats and acid-tossing creeps.

Fewer colors, scratchy voices, much too fast gameplay.
The only thing Genesis does, in this case, is disappoint.
Inspired by the video, I played both the Super NES and Genesis versions of The Pagemaster, and there's a few things you should know that Macaulay Culkin may not have already told you. First, if you have to play this game at all, stick with the Super NES release... it's more polished, and what advantages the Genesis hardware provides actually detract from the game, speeding up an already slippery platformer to the point where it's nearly unplayable. 

See, there's your problem right there.
Ain't that a revoltin' development!
Second, it was designed by Probe, the hapless developers of many a crappy licensed 16-bit game, so don't expect much even from the Super NES version. It's like the designers watched the Pagemaster film, hastily scribbled out a checklist, and shoehorned everything they wrote down into a bog-standard mid-90s action game.

Macaulay's reaction to the Pagemaster game.
He probably should have gotten something
stronger than a cigarette.
Here's the third thing. Mac, who apparently was too busy getting exploited by his parents to play video games in the 1990s, makes a lot of dumb mistakes while playing The Pagemaster. However, it's not entirely his fault, because the game does a piss-poor job of explaining how anything works. "If you've played one action platformer," the designers must have muttered while trapped inside their cubicles, "you've played them all," and dumped the player into a dimly lit castle with no indication of what to do or where to go. 

You can attack enemies, but you have to jump on them, and it's not easy to do because the foes appear suddenly, and because the Digicel animation which makes the game look more cartoony also makes it hard to land a clean hit. In Super Mario World, the characters are neatly confined within their sprite boxes and jumping is consistent, so when you leap for that Goomba, chances are you're going to hit your target. When the movement for both hero and villain are less predictable and limbs are flailing around all over the place, your safety is less of a sure thing and more of a coin flip.

And now, the obligatory Mode 7 bonus
stage, inserted for no other reason than
because the developers could.
Much like Super Mario World, you can cushion yourself from an otherwise fatal hit by collecting items, but again, it's not entirely clear what these do. Shiny black shoes make Mac jump higher, but they also let him leap off the sides of walls. I didn't realize that Mac didn't have this ability by default until an hour of playing, when I ran for a wall without the shoes and dropped to the ground rather than climbing upward. Other items include a bag of eyeballs (ew) and a green gas cloud. The eyeballs work as projectiles, letting you strike from a safe distance, but the gas cloud doesn't seem to do anything... it just falls out of Mac's pocket after he's hit by a rampaging book.

So THAT'S what the green goop does!
Why did it take this long to figure that out...?
Obviously Rolfe made the video to kick sand in the face of an easy target while embarrassing a former child star in the process, but even if you give it an honest chance, The Pagemaster doesn't reward your patience. It's derivative- these well animated but otherwise forgettable platformers were churned out by the dozens in the early 1990s- and it's more concerned with being effective merchandise for a kid's movie than an entertaining video game in its own right. "It's got books, right? It's got levels based on scenes from the film too, right? It's got that Macintoshy Caulk Gun kid, right? Good, ship it." That's probably all the explanation anyone needs for The Pagemaster's existence.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Run (from) Forest, Run!

Well, it's after Christmas. Let's see how the Playstation Classic is doing so far!

image from Wikipedia
Whoopsie. This is shaping up to be the biggest flop Sony released since... the last micro console it released. Maybe that should be telling them something. Namely, they shouldn't be rushing a product to market, quality be damned, for the sake of some easy nostalgia money. Hackers are doing their very best to turn this sow's ear into a porcine purse, but Sony could have saved us all a lot of time by getting the PS Classic right in the first place.

Anyway. While not over-stuffing myself with holiday treats, I've been playing Ori and the Blind Forest, but the game's just not clicking with me. I don't like the title character, who looks like a half-baked experiment lifted from the quickly forgotten Lilo and Stitch television series. (You didn't know there was a TV series? My point exactly.) I don't like his sidekick, which doubles as an exposition dispenser and a clumsy method of attack. I sure as hell don't like the gameplay, which impedes your progress until you find the dozens of thinly veiled keys that grant you access to later areas.

I realize that I just described an entire sub-genre of games. That's the problem, though... we've been playing Metrovanias since Castlevania: Symphony of the Night pioneered that style of gameplay over twenty years ago, and it's gotten to be painfully old hat. I'm no longer excited by the prospect of gradually revealing a map while strengthening my hero... I've seen it all before, in countless games by both big name publishers and indie developers. 

That joy of discovery is gone, replaced by annoyance when there's a door that blocks my path or a ledge that's an inch too high to reach. Let me guess, I need a crystal and a double jump, right? Of course I do. Could you save me a lot of aggravation and just give them to me now? Of course you can't. I have to get lost for an hour in this Gordian knot you call a level until the power ups I need finally reveal themselves. Yaaaaay.

The only Metrovania in recent memory that rises above the monotony of the genre and makes you want to find all the items hidden in the nooks and crannies is Tom Happ's Axiom Verge. It seems at first blush to follow the Metroid template extremely closely... you've got a gun, you climb up tall shafts filled with platforms, you blast the mindless creatures crawling over (and under) said platforms for health boosts. 

The gameplay is very familiar... and yet it isn't, since Trace gets weapons and abilities at a brisk pace, and they're often quite different from what you've seen in similar games. Enemies can be glitched with a reality-warping beam, altering their behavior, and the tired double jump has been forsaken, replaced with a remote controlled droid and the ability to phase through walls. You haven't seen this stuff before, which makes Axiom Verge compelling while other games in its genre have gone ripe with stagnation.

You know, games like Ori and the Blind Forest. From the overly long, occasionally interactive prologue to the retread gameplay, Ori just leaves me with a severe case of "who gives a damn." Yes, it looks better than Axiom Verge, but all that lush woodland scenery makes the action less precise. If there's a jump you can't make in Axiom Verge, you'll know it right away from the clean pixel art. Ori's levels are still navigable... they're just not as readable, and if I can be blunt, there's little reason to explore them when you've seen it all before in a dozen other games.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Don't Buy An Xbox One, Charlie Brown

Okay, some good news first. I just received my Saturn in the mail today. It seems to work fine, which makes me pretty happy, but what makes me even happier is switching the system on and hearing those tinkling chimes for the first time in years. Then hitting the reset button and hearing them all over again. Then hitting the reset button again and... well, you get the idea. I get a nostalgic jolt every time I hear it, which is why I didn't really want to buy a Japanese Saturn instead. The boot animation is the same, but the sound that accompanies it holds no personal significance to me and, if I can be blunt, is pretty damned annoying besides.

Anyway, here's a clip of the US Saturn boot sequence so you can have a taste of that joy for yourself.

Okay, now onto the bitter ranting! A few months ago, Microsoft ran a promotion which encouraged users to visit sites like Bing over an extended period of time, in exchange for a monthly payout of points, redeemable for gift cards and subscriptions to Microsoft services. If you finished all of the tasks you were given in a three month span, you'd be rewarded with three months of access to Xbox Game Pass. 

There was just one teeny little problem... in the grand tradition of a crooked carnival game, the odds were stacked against you, making it impossible to win the prize. In the final month, you were asked to make twenty daily visits to the Xbox web site, but the counter would miss every other visit, or get stuck and refuse to count upward for days at a time. Put bluntly, you couldn't finish the promotion and get your three months of Game Pass, because Microsoft wouldn't let you.

I contacted Microsoft's customer service line twice while the promotion was still active, only to be told that they were working on it and that I needed to be patient. All patience got me was another bogus offer from Microsoft, where they promised a free ten dollar gift card but only gave you a blank screen when you clicked on the link. Hours later, I tried the link again, only to be told "Sorry, we ran out of gift cards, but stay tuned for more special offers!" Yeah, like I don't already know how that's gonna go.

(By the way, have you seen Microsoft founder Bill Gates lately? He looks like friggin' Orville Redenbacher. Like, zombie Redenbacher from those scary ads.)

So yeah, I'm not terribly happy with Microsoft right now. It's not just the piss-poor customer service that offers a whole lot of stalling and very little customer service. It's also the hardware they're selling, which comes up short against its main competitor, the Playstation 4. YouTube personality Jim Sterling called the Xbox One "just a little bit shite," but that's an overly generous description of a system that can't even keep up with its own interface. Really, you should not have to wait three seconds for a cursor to jump from one game to the next, yet that's the kind of performance the Xbox One offers if you've left it in "instant on" mode for a few days. Sure, you can turn it off, but then you're not going to be able to download games in the background, and you kind of want that feature when the games in question are anywhere from 40GB to 70GB in size.

I can't say I wasn't warned. People in the know told me not to buy an Xbox One, but common sense be damned, I just had to have that sequel to Killer Instinct. Nearly one year later, I feel like I'm still paying for it.

I've Fallen Off My Skateboard and I Can't Get Up

Well, the estimated time of arrival for my Sega Saturn is tomorrow. I am so ready to add that black box of late 1990s gaming goodness to my collection... I've just got to find an Action Replay Plus and hack it and I'll be set.

In the meantime, I can occupy myself with this copy of Tony Hawk's Underground 2 I picked up at a thrift store a few days ago. Playing the game has been a nostalgic experience... not for the warm fuzzy memories of a time long past, but for the reminder of just how lousy I used to be at this game when I was in my twenties. Playing Tony Hawk requires both a working knowledge of the game's trick system and the reflexes to key in your moves while you're still airborne. I didn't have that knowledge when the series first launched in 1999... nearly twenty years later, the knowledge is there, but the reflexes aren't. Oh, the curse of being a middle aged member of Generation X! What cruel fate it is to no longer have the skill for the extreme, radical® diversions that defined your demographic!

Don't ship me off to the old folks' home just yet, though... I have a suspicion that my crummy reflexes aren't the only reason for my sluggish progress. Activision and Neversoft finally picked up the clue phone and included an arcade mode in Tony Hawk's Underground 2, after several installments without one. I was never fond of the decision to turn Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 into an adventure game, complete with annoying fetch quests, so the inclusion of a play mode similar to what was offered in the first three games is deeply appreciated. 

There's just one problem, though... this arcade mode demands a lot more of the player than the previous ones did. The letters spelling out S-K-A-T-E always seem to hang just out of reach, and there are new C-O-M-B-O letters which have to be collected while you're stringing together a series of tricks. Each level is double the size of the ones in Tony Hawk 2, and the designers have a habit of tucking items in the nooks and crannies, where you're not likely to find them. You can boost your stats by grabbing icons in each stage, but like everything else in the game, they're sadistically placed, so you'll have a hell of a time reaching them in the two minutes allotted. I don't need a crystal ball to see myself hunting down cheat codes for THUG2 in the immediate future...

Thursday, December 13, 2018

And Now, a Never-Ending Word from Our Sponsor

How dare Capcom sully the good name of the Street Fighter series by pushing constant advertising in the player's face! The Capcom I loved from the 1990s would never-

Okay, there was that Treesweet orange juice sign from Marvel Super Heroes. That happened once, but the Capcom of my youth certainly didn't make a habit of-

Blast it, it's that Fujitsu billboard from Street Fighter Alpha 2! Fine, Capcom has always been a bunch of money-grubbing whores, but at least they tried to be subtle about it twenty years ago. Now, we're getting stuff like this...

"I am marketing power made fleash!"
(image from Polygon)
Thanks to a recent update, Street Fighter V has advertising all over the friggin' place. Not subtle, unintrusive product placement that helps make each stage feel a bit more lifelike, but the Capcom Pro Tour logo plastered all over the backgrounds and characters. Yes, you can turn off the ads, but they're turned on by default. Yes, you get "fight money" for every match while the ads are on, but the payout is supremely inconsequential. Twelve FP per match to get beaten over the head with advertising is less "carrot and stick" and more like a stale baby carrot tied to the end of a telephone pole.

Honestly, I didn't like Street Fighter V that much before... it represented a low point for the series, with characters dredged from the bottom of the Capcom barrel (Rainbow Mika? Really...?) and a storyline with all the consequence of an ant's bowel movement. Piling in more commercials than the last fifty two Super Bowls combined does little to sweeten my opinion of the game. Special thanks to Polygon and Destructoid for the warning... I mean, news.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Head for Saturn

Ice Cube, somewhere between his
"Straight Outta Compton" days and his
family friendly movie days. I
dunno, I was more of a Native
Tongues guy myself.
(image from SegaXtrewe)
I've been hoping to get my Sega Saturn back from Michigan... but it's become depressingly obvious after four years that it's just never going to happen, so I had to take matters into my own hands and buy a replacement. Could I have gotten by with emulation? Sure, but the Saturn's messy hardware architecture and its lack of mainstream popularity means that no emulator does it full justice. Besides, it would just be nice having it sit proudly with the rest of my game consoles, yanno? The Saturn was home gaming for me in the latter half of the 1990s, until I eventually defected to a Playstation in 1999 and then a Dreamcast one year later.

It's a late model Saturn with the bigger, more ergonomic buttons, and it should arrive in about a week with the power cable and two controllers (again, the good ones, not those eight hundred pound gorillas the Saturn launched with in the United States). I've got an S-video cable coming from another dealer, which means the only piece of the puzzle missing is an Action Replay running Pseudo Saturn. That's the software hack that opens up the machine to a world of imports and backups. There are chip hacks for the Saturn too, but I prefer the grab 'n go convenience of a cartridge that both cracks the system's security measures and offers extra RAM for those more ambitious fighting games. You know, like Final Fight Revenge!

What, that literally required the four meg RAM cartridge! Stop hitting me!

Anyway... more news as it happens. And the swelling stops, you big meanie.