Friday, February 9, 2024

The Party's Over, and the Third Party Begins

 

"Oh no, Xbox Series!"

Poor, poor Microsoft. All the money in the world and you still couldn't buy a clue. Anything Phil Spencer says in next week's press conference will only serve to confirm gamers' suspicions that the Xbox brand has been dead in the water for years, since Don Mattrick's fateful decision in 2013 to turn the Xbox One into a consumer-hostile Pandora's Box of DRM and surveillance nightmares. 

No game system could recover from that, and although the Xbox Series is certainly a better console than what had come before it, it was doomed by its manufacturer's past mistakes and hubris, just as Sega's Dreamcast was in 2001, and Nintendo's Wii U was in 2017. Yet again, I'm stuck with an abandoned game system, an underdog of the console wars that was run over by its competitors, then scraped off the road and deposited into a shallow grave by its owner.

You'd think I would learn by now. At least I'll have the foresight to scoop up all the heavily discounted Xbox Series accessories I couldn't afford when the system was still actively supported. And I could always segue into PC gaming, where your fate as a gamer is not so heavily dependent on brand loyalty. If I buy the wrong video card, I lose a little performance... no big deal. If I buy the wrong game system, I lose key exclusives, and depending on how badly the machine sells, may not play much of anything for a couple of years. (And let me tell you, the Saturn and Dreamcast were some dry, dry years.)

I'll live. I'll just have to adapt, and right now, PC gaming seems like the right path to take. (Besides, all the home game systems are barely disguised computers anyway.)

Friday, January 26, 2024

Just for the record...

 

Imagine dragons. With Swedish accents.
(from Fandom. Skyrim's fandom, I guess.)




I know video games don't come with instruction manuals anymore (hell, if the rumors are true, video games won't have physical anything in another year...), but I've been playing Skyrim on the Switch, and that game is too damn meaty to not have one. I feel like it should have come with an operator's guide thick enough to be in Knight Rider's glove compartment. Mechanically, this game is as encumbered as your character will be after picking up everything you see on your Nordic-tracked adventures. "Troll fat? Sure, you never know when you'll need it. Wouldn't want to be left empty-handed at a sudden troll barbecue."

I'm enjoying it, though. I'm enjoying it a lot more for the ten dollars I paid at a pawn shop than I would have if I paid the full retail price of sixty bucks. For Skyrim. Yes, it's a good game with nearly infinite playability, and it suffers very little from the problems that often plague demanding titles on the Switch (see also Mortal Kombat 1 and that Batman Arkham collection), but dude, it's thirteen years old. Damn, Bethesda, stop milking it. And don't make me pay no sixteen dollars- the sale price!- for the Anniversary Edition that steps up the graphics. It's a Switch. Half the caves are too dark to see anything. I'm not slipping you sixteen skins for high-definition cave darkness.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Yooka-Laylee and the Lightning that Can Never Return to the Bottle

Man, I don't even know what to do with this dusty old blog anymore. I don't think I updated at all on November, and nearly ignored the blog this month as well. However, it felt right to post something before the end of the year, so here it is. Don't expect anything too organized... I'm just going to prattle on about a handful of games I've been playing lately.

First on the menu is Yooka-Laylee. I grabbed a copy of this for the Switch when the price dropped to three dollars, and it certainly is... a game I've been playing. From the mismatched power couple who serve as the heroes to the inanimate objects with buggy eyes to the referential jokes with all the subtlety of a lead pipe to the back of the skull, Yooka-Laylee's intentions are clear. It wants to bring back the vibe of the European platformers popular on the Nintendo 64 in the late 1990s, but it concentrates way too much on window dressing while leaving the core of the gameplay unrefined. 

And there are minecart races, because you
DEFINITELY wanted to relive those little
nightmares.
(image from New Game Network)

 
Almost from the moment you walk through the doors of the Hivory Towers, Yooka-Laylee reveals itself as cryptic and unfocused. Stages are gigantic, without the benefit of a map to help guide you through them, timed challenges are given ruthless time limits, and obtuse puzzles are frequently presented without apparent solutions. Why won't those plants talk to me? What do I do with this giggling bush? How the hell do I get through this door? Talking to the sexual innuendo snake hidden in each world and buying his moves chips away at the brick walls of confusion the game insists on dropping in front of you, but I still can't fathom how anybody could finish this game without a strategy guide. 

You'll get your three dollars' worth out of Yooka-Laylee just from bumbling through the stages and collecting hidden whatzits, but this is the Switch. There's no end of top-tier platformers on this system, and playing this clumsy 1990s throwback feels like slumming when you've got Kirby and the Forgotten Land and a million Mario games at your fingertips.

Speaking of Kirby and the Forgotten Land, I picked that up in a recent sale, and was quite pleased with it. There was a lot of early hype about this being an open world game, but calling it "open world" is as much of a stretch as Kirby trying to get his mouth around a rusty Volkswagen. The stages are typically wide hallways, granting the pink puffball some lateral movement but little room to explore the environment. You'll find the occasional fork in the road or a path hidden behind some debris, but beyond that Forgotten Land is only slightly less linear than a traditional Kirby game. (Not that I'm complaining after playing Yooka-Laylee.)

The enemies d'jour in Forgotten Land are
Woofos, corgis at their most adorably
deadly.
(image from Nintendo EVERYTHING!!!)


Each recent Kirby title comes with its own signature gimmick, from the all-consuming Hypernova fruits in Triple Deluxe to the mighty mechs in Planet Robobot. Forgotten Land introduces the Mouthful, which lets Kirby partially consume and adopt the characteristics of objects too large for him to swallow outright. Suck up an abandoned car and Kirby becomes the car, letting him crash into walls and soar over ramps. Eat a traffic cone and Kirby turns into a pointy pylon, letting him break through cracks in the floor and impale enemies. It's not one of the most memorable tricks up Kirby's proverbial sleeve, but it does bring variety and simple puzzle solving to the action.

Beyond the faintly open world gameplay and the most optimistic post-apocalyptic setting you've ever seen in a video game, it's business as usual for the Kirby series. Forgotten Land offers a perfect balance between light, breezy fun and a wealth of content... there are tons of goodies to collect and an abundance of distinct stages to visit, but there's never so much on your plate that you feel overwhelmed, and everything's clear enough that you're rarely left feeling confused and frustrated (looking at you, Yooka-Laylee).

Finally, there's Street Fighter 6. Capcom bunted with the last Street Fighter game, but this feels like a swing for the fences, with a story mode that feels like a game in and of itself, rather than a bunch of versus matches sandwiched between exposition (sorry, Mortal Kombat 11). Plenty of reviewers have compared the World Tour to Sega's Yakuza series, and it's hard not to notice the similarities when you're hoofing it through Metro City, finishing silly fetch quests and scrounging money and items from any thug stupid enough to cross paths with you. 

Street Fighter 6 not only makes tons of
references to past Capcom games, but
builds on Final Fight and Street Fighter
lore in unexpected ways. You can fight
pretty much anyone in this game if you'd
like. Starting fights with strangers in
Metro City is just a way to introduce
yourself, like shaking hands, or dogs
sniffing each others' butts.
(image from Tom's Guide)
 


The big difference is that while Yakuza's combat mechanics were only pretty good, Street Fighter 6's fights play like a standard game of Street Fighter, which makes them damn near perfect. As you advance, you'll meet Street Fighter legends and learn both their stances and signature moves, eventually turning your character into a patchwork quilt of martial arts mastery. It's frustratingly limited when the game starts and you're stuck with the move set of the aggressively generic Luke, but the range of your abilities expands as you visit new countries and meet the fighters who live there. Pretty soon you'll have a terrifying Frankenstein's monster of a fighter, sewn together from the body parts of past Street Fighter champions.

And oh yeah, the actual versus fights are spiffy too, although they practically feel like bonus content next to the meaty story mode. Street Fighter 6 dumps the V modes of Street Fighter 5 into the trash where they belong, and replaces them with the vastly superior drive gauge. The drive gauge works a bit like stamina in a Dark Souls game... it's a bar that depletes when you use special techniques like boosting the power of a special move, but refills when you leave it alone. Use it too much and you could drain it completely, leaving you vulnerable and potentially helpless. It's up to you to use the drive gauge effectively but S-P-A-R-I-N-G-L-Y, so you're shattering turtles with the block-breaking Drive Impacts and doling out bonus damage, but not exhausting yourself and getting caught with your pants down. It's a compelling play mechanic and one of the most monumental we've seen in a Street Fighter game since the supers in Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Don't be surprised if the Drive Gauge sticks with the Street Fighter series for a few sequels.

A playing card reject with an unhealthy
addiction to steroids. Just what I always
wanted in a Street Fighter game!
(image from Capcom)
There are new characters, and as expected from Dimps-era Street Fighter, they're hit or miss. One of the highlights is Kimberly, who carries the teenage schoolgirl ninja torch first lit by Ibuki, but zests it up with graffiti and a street smart attitude. On the downside, you've got gladiator giantess Marisa (ME WANT SNU-SNU!!!) and JP, an elderly man in a top hat* who's almost as exciting as Capcom's last dud Necalli. Maybe you guys should stop serving up fresh cowpies like El Fuerte, F.A.N.G., and Rufus, and just steal ideas from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure and Bloodsport again. Just sayin'.

It has become apparent that I'm entirely too high to finish the rest of this review, so I'll just conclude by saying that Street Fighter 6 is the very best Street Fighter has been in years. Years! Kudos, Capcom. Way to catch up to Mortal Kombat after nearly a decade of eating its dust.

* Okay, so I mixed him up with the other guy from Street Fighter 5, another lame-tastic lamie from the land of lame fighting game characters. Shit, you might as well bring back Angus from Kasumi Ninja, complete with great balls of fire that erupt from his lifted kilt.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Microsoft Can Stick It (or, One Giant Leap)

Attention, fighting game fans! Evidently, these are the new rules for playing video games on the Xbox, effective November 12th.

(image from Rabbits Full of Magic)
(also, that's Kerri Hoskins)
(yes, Sonya Blade from the early MK games)


 

It's not what you agreed to when you bought your Xbox Series, but Bill Gates has altered the agreement. Pray he doesn't alter it any further. 

Needless to say, I'm pretty cheesed off at this development. Look, I've got a ton of game controllers for various consoles. Many of these have USB cables, and many of them can be used on Xbox systems with the aid of an adapter, like the ones manufactured by Mayflash. This gives me the freedom to play any Xbox game with any controller I please, be it a six button Saturn joypad best suited for fighting games or a perfectly functional arcade joystick whose sole fault is being designed for the orphaned Xbox 360. When this new rule and the firmware update that enforces it goes into effect on the 12th, I'm going to lose a lot of that flexibility, and will be expected to shell out hundreds of dollars for licensed controllers, just to get some of it back. 

(Some. Not all. I've got a clicky stick Neo-Geo controller coming in the mail that will be useless on the Xbox in two weeks. Frankly, it's doubtful that 8BitDo will pay a licensing fee to make that controller specifically for a machine that's already laid down its arms in the console wars of the 2020s. They're third place in a three man race. You know what that makes them? Last place. Sorry Microsoft, but nobody in last place gets their own game controller.)

Poorly played, Microsoft. You can't just cram the controller genie back in the bottle after letting it roam free for years. By your own admission, the Xbox Series is well behind its competitors in this console generation, and this move will not go over well with the few fans you have left. What's the point of buying every game publisher you can get your filthy, blood-stained claws on if you're going to chase away Xbox owners with draconian policies like this?

Now it plays your favorite Supervision
games! I can't wait for the update that
opens the doors to the exciting HyperScan library!

Hmph. In more open source news, fans of the Data Frog SF2000 were given a massively expanded software library, thanks to a Multicore firmware developed by Adcockm and his team of hackers. Officially, the SF2000 can run games for the NES, Genesis, Super NES, and three flavors of Game Boy, but unofficially, with the aid of this firmware, the system can handle Sega CD, TurboDuo, Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Game Gear, Atari Lynx, and Neo-Geo Pocket games as well. 

I've said in the past that the SF2000 is the king of el cheapo handhelds, and this only strengthens that opinion. Say what you will about emulation, especially on a handheld you might find at the bottom of a cereal box, but I owned an Atari Lynx years ago, and Data Frog's system is every bit as good a Lynx as an actual Lynx. Heck, it's better, because you've got save states handy for longer games like Slime World, and aren't risking your vision trying to make out details on the washed out Lynx screen. 

And that's just the Atari Lynx! The Data Frog can do a pretty convincing imitation of a Neo-Geo Pocket, a TurboExpress, a Supervision (for those of you, ahem, into that sort of thing...) and even a couple of CD-based systems you wouldn't have dared imagine playing on the go in 1993. It may be only twenty dollars, but the SF2000 is punching so far above its weight class it could send Mike Tyson into orbit.

Friday, October 13, 2023

Lucky Number Thirteen

These blog updates are getting pretty slim, aren't they? I guess I just don't have much to talk about lately. One thing that does bear mentioning is that after two years of battling regulators, Microsoft has finally laid claim to Activision, the world's first third party game publisher. This of course means that Activision no longer is one, although it's likely they'll still publish games for the Nintendo Switch. The Switch is regarded as something of an industry neutral zone, even if Sony has shown little interest in publishing games for the system.

Microsoft will still be obligated to make Call of Duty games for the Playstation 5 as part of the terms they agreed to honor with both Sony and government regulators, but that's hardly a concern for me. First person shooters aren't my bag, baby... I can't even play a boomer shooter like Doom without getting hopelessly confused as to where I should go next. I need a red keycard to get to the end of the stage? But it's guarded by a series of crushing walls that I can't seem to dodge? Lovely. By the time I've reached that keycard, I won't even need it... I'll be flat enough to slide under all the doors.

In other slightly worrying merger news, there are reports that Disney's CEO is being pressured by investors to purchase Electronic Arts. Bob Iger has claimed in the past that Disney's never had much success in the video game industry, and indeed, their stab at the toys to life market in the 2010s ultimately didn't amount to much. However, Disney has never given up on video games completely, as evidenced by the upcoming remaster of the old Gargoyles game for the Genesis. Personally, I'd suggest resurrecting the LucasFilm Games label (yanno, the brand they already own) or investing in long time partner Capcom instead, but hey, it's not MY billions and billions of dollars they're spending.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

No Sleep 'Til Brooklin (and Ellewood)

Heh, I guess I'm not done with this blog yet. The Kbin thing seems to be working out pretty well for me, though... I've got over a hundred watchers at the moment, and I keep it updated on a semi-regular basis. Well, more than this place, anyway.

Anyway! I'm writing here because Microsoft was caught with its proverbial pants down, with tons of last year's internal memos becoming external memos, to the glee of fans. Courtesy of Verge, here's what can be gleaned from this leaked information, provided that any of it remains valid. Microsoft frat boy in chief Phil Spencer suggests that the data is already obsolete in 2023, but I strongly doubt all of it is.

Microsoft is firing on one cylinder
with its mid-gen refresh, codenamed
Brooklin.
(image from Polygon)




 
 

NEW XBOX SERIES X

Say hello to the new model of the Xbox Series X... and say goodbye to physical media. Yes, in the distant future of 2024, even the Series X won't have an optical drive. This could be inconvenient for Microsoft, as all of their retail discs up to this point have "designed for Xbox Series X" written on the top. Will Microsoft just stop selling discs from this point forward? Or is this some of that outdated information Phil Spencer swears this leak contains? We probably won't know for sure until next year.

What Brooklin will have is a doubling of internal storage (2TB versus the single terabyte in the Xbox Series X), an ugly but feature-filled controller that adds haptic feedback, and a USB-C port. You know, the small one with the oval-shaped connector that doesn't particularly care which way you plug it into your system. The system itself has a strange cylindrical shape that brings to mind stylish but decidedly low-tech appliances like trash cans or air purifiers (thank Madlittlepixel for that comparison). Also, I'm sure that the cylindrical design will make the system that much tougher to repair or modify. The only way you're adding more storage to this thing is with those hella expensive expansion cards.

Meet the new budget boss, same as the
old budget boss. Give or take new Bluetooth
technology and a USB-C port.
(image from GamesIndustry)

 

NEW XBOX SERIES S

Yes, the budget-priced game system that every developer hates is back with a vengeance... and with double the storage of the original, thank goodness. I've learned from personal experience that 512GB (really more like 384GB) is nowhere near enough these days, especially when cross-buy games like Mortal Kombat 11 force you to install them on the Xbox Series S's paltry internal hard drive. Beyond that, things are largely kept consistent with the original, with the same shape and (phew) price. Sure, you get slightly faster Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus a USB-C port on the front instead of the rectangular port, but past that, it's business as usual. No, they're not bumping up the RAM like they did with the PSP refresh. Sorry, Larian Studios.

Sense and Sebile Abilities.
(image from TrueAchievements)
 

NEW XBOX CONTROLLER

Microsoft plays catch up with its competitors by introducing a game controller with all the features everyone else already had ten years ago. Personally, I like the relative simplicity of the Xbox Series controller, but if you'd like a gyroscope and "precision haptic feedback" to go with your gaming, soon you'll have them. What precisely is precision haptic feedback? I don't fully understand the technology, but it's supposed to offer a more realistic tactile sensation than ordinary rumble motors. When you drive over gravel in Forza Horizon, it really feels like you're driving over gravel. Nintendo calls this "HD rumble," and has mastered it to the degree that there's a game in 1-2 Switch which has you guessing the number of ice cubes in a glass, by shaking your Joycon and feeling them.

It kind of sucks that Microsoft will have to shoehorn compatibility with this controller into its existing games, but I suppose that this isn't so much a problem now that games have downloadable updates. I was still in my teens during that awkward transition between three and six button controllers on the Sega Genesis, and that was oh so much worse. Pressing start to switch between punches and kicks in Street Fighter II was such a load of...

CLOUD HYBRID XBOX PLANNED FOR 2028

So the good news is we won't have to shell out for a next generation Microsoft console for another five years. Hell yes, win one for the cheapskate! The bad news is that it's supposed to be a "cloud hybrid" system, which suggests that the machine will be at least partially reliant on the internet and won't be fully playable while off the grid. Also, the games may not even be directly on your system but instead streamed off a network somewhere, which will have a profound negative effect on lag and visual fidelity. Cloud gaming apparently works in small, tech-savvy nations like Japan and South Korea, and even in large American cities, but what about those of us out in the boonies? Our internet sucks, and it's not likely to improve anytime soon. Please don't make the same mistakes Don Mattrick did ten years ago and tell us to suck it up, or settle for last generation's tech.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

August or Bust

Lots has happened in the gaming world since the last time I posted. Where do I even begin?

I preferred Martinet's portrayal of Wario,
myself. He's-a nuts!
(image from Nintenderos)






* Charles Martinet has been demoted from Mario's principal voice actor to a Mario "ambassador," whatever that means. He'd been playing the role for thirty years, starting with the Super Mario Bros. pinball table from Gottlieb, and his absence will surely be felt by fans of the series. Who will be Martinet's replacement? Either Nintendo isn't willing to divulge that information right now, or doesn't know itself.

* The Xbox 360, Microsoft's most successful and arguably best game system, is on borrowed time. Its digital storefront will be closed in just eleven months, and from that point forward, you won't be able to purchase games for the system online. However, Xbox 360 games purchased before July 29th 2024 can be re-downloaded from Microsoft's servers, and of course, Xbox 360 games compatible with the Xbox One and Series can be purchased for those systems after that date.

* Atari is releasing yet another game system, the 2600 Plus. This machine plays both 2600 and 7800 games, and outputs them in glorious HDMI... but there's a catch. Some games aren't compatible, and the whole shebang will set you back $130. This is eighty dollars more than an Atari 2600 Jr. cost in 1988, and kind of hard to justify when there's already a jillion ways to play Atari 2600 games at home. Some of them are even legal!

* Sorry I've been neglecting this blog. I'm doing most of my video game posting on Kbin these days. Check out my magazine OldGames4OldGamers for more frequently updated content.