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.

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