Sunday, January 27, 2013

In The Groove - What's Up at D.O.W.N.S.

Chances are that you've heard of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), but unfortunately, you, like many, may not have heard of the similar In The Groove (ITG). It's understandable. Dance games aren't exactly the hip and new thing they once were, and even when they were new, arcades were declining in popularity. Furthermore, DDR had many more games in the series than ITG which only has two arcade games and one for PS2. But In The Groove has something that DDR doesn't have that has given it the staying power to keep a strong community long after the series ceased production and was bought out by Konami. That something is mod-ability. 

Since In The Groove is based on the free and open source StepMania, once you have access to the arcade machine, it isn't hard to modify it exactly how you want. Most importantly, this means that it is possible to add custom songs and step charts. ITG already offered more challenging songs than DDR, but with the addition of thousands of fan-made charts, the difficulty has continued to increase over the years as players keep improving. Getting 100% on a song is even harder than most rhythm games since each step is graded based on timing. To perfect a song, you need to hit every arrow with perfect timing, as opposed to Guitar Hero, where all you need to do is hit every note. 

It leaves a lot of room for improvement and for competition, which is why there are several major tournaments every year. At the end of 2012, there was "Bearpocalypse", an invite-only tournament where the best of the best competed to get the best scores they could on certain songs within a certain time period. Just this past weekend was the less serious, but still incredibly difficult, D.O.W.N.S.. 
Players came from far and wide to compete in D.O.W.N.S..
D.O.W.N.S. is unique in that all the stepcharts in the competition are composed specifically for the event by the participants. Anyone who entered early enough was able to submit up to three songs and charts, with very few limitations. This lack of limitations means that the charts are often hard, stupidly hard, or just plain stupid, but there are always a few that include gimmicks and mods that totally turn the game on its head, similar to the Rhythm Heaven adaptation I posted about last September. Charts of that sort from this third iteration of D.O.W.N.S. included  "Racecar", which had players pressing the direction of turns as an 8-bit racecar made its way around a track; one with a misleading title and preview track that was actually a totally different song with a chart consisting of very fast left and right arrows for the whole song; Weird Al's "Polkamon", with Pokemon distractingly appearing all over the screen; and "Take Your Shirt Off", which had a code programmed in that would flip the arrows and display a message when input at the beginning of the song. In fact, there were over eighty charts written for this year's tournament which were made available a couple months in advance so players could practice them.
Amazingly, this year's D.O.W.N.S. brought in players from far out of state and even out of country. Forty-some people participated and far more came to watch, along with the confused mall patrons who stopped to marvel at the spectacle. Clearly, In The Groove maintains a competitive and fun-loving community that continues to evolve with the players' skill levels and their creative ideas. Dance games may be out of the eye of mainstream gamers, but the genre is far from dead.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Let's Play Co-op NES Games

I had an itch that needed to be scratched. It was the co-op NES game itch. So, without telling him what we were going to play, I invited my friend over for some games. Somewhat surprisingly, there were a lot of co-op NES games to choose from, especially among beat 'em ups and shoot 'em ups. I decided to go with two I was familiar with and one that I hadn't really played before. Also, I recorded our experiences for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

Chip 'N Dale: Rescue Rangers 2
This game is impressive for its time and still a joy to play today. It's got your usual platforming, but you can also pick up and throw objects like in Super Mario Bros. 2, hide in boxes like in Metal Gear Solid, and ride in minecarts like in Donkey Kong Country. There aren't that many levels, but each level introduces entirely new graphics, music, enemies, and subtle gameplay mechanics which are often used only once. It's really cool to see new things introduced so often and for them to be implemented so well. The settings for each level aren't the usual platforming game levels either; instead of grassy areas, deserts, frozen tundras, and lava levels, you'll run through an oversized restaurant, clock tower, sewer, wild west, and others. Of course, what makes this game even better is the simultaneous co-op, which feels like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, way before that even came out. There are plenty of ways to interact with your partner too: you can jump on them, pick them up and throw them, and even attack them if you wanted to. It's super fun and all of these things together make Chip 'N Dale 2 really feel ahead of its time.

Bubble Bobble
Bubble Bobble isn't exactly bursting with a variety of content like Chip 'N Dale was, but that's alright because it has solid and fun core gameplay and over 100 levels to enjoy it in. And it's also like six years older than Chip 'N Dale 2. In fact, it's a port of an arcade game. In each level, all you have to do is shoot bubbles at the enemies to capture them, then pop the bubbles to kill them. If you don't do it fast enough, they'll get angry and move faster, and if you're still too slow, an invincible enemy (that scared me as a kid) will appear to motivate you further. Apart from the normal bubbles you can shoot, there are also special bubbles that float around certain stages that can drop fire, shoot lightning bolts, or send you shooting down the stage when popped. Once again, playing with a friend makes everything more fun. It's also nice that this game has unlimited continues and passwords for each level that aren't annoyingly long. If you manage to get to the end, there is even a secret ending to go for if you think you're skilled enough. Even though this game is quite old, it's still unique and fun to play.

Ouch. My friend and I didn't do nearly as well at Contra as we did in the other games. And that's saying something, because we did pretty badly at the other games too. This game is hard, so it's no wonder it made the Konami code famous. It didn't take us long to resort to the free thirty lives the code gave either. Though we still didn't make it far, it definitely seemed like the kind of game that would be really fun to play if you were good at it. The best things about it were its fast pace, the ability to shoot in eight directions, and the plentiful weapon upgrades. Unfortunately for us, if you die, you lose the weapon upgrades, so we were limited to feeling awesome for only seconds at a time. The stages seemed to be divided into side-scrolling platforming stages and third person tunnel stages. The controls for platforming were wonderful and easy to use, but the tunnel levels were a bit less intuitive and had a bit of a learning curve. For us, those levels were less fun and often resulted in deaths due to misunderstanding the controls and graphics. Even though I did pretty badly and would've liked to see more platforming stages, I can't deny that what I saw of Contra seemed to be a great game. But if you're playing it for the first time, don't expect to be a master from the start; this game is Nintendo hard.

That's all for this week, but if you have any recommendations for more co-op NES games you'd like to see us play, let me know in the comments and you could see them in a future post.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Fringe Trivia - The homemade board game by my dad

Now that the great SciFi series, Fringe, has come to an end, my dad has been bugging me and everyone we know who watches the show to play "Fringe Trivia". I had assumed that my dad found this game online somewhere and I flatly told him that I wasn't interested in playing. Unavoidably, he started setting it up before the series finale, which is when I found out that he made this game himself and that it was no small undertaking. Through my dad's labor of love which consumed an untold amount of lunch hours and company printer paper and ink, I can now present to you "Fringe Trivia". 
How to Play:
Set up the board however you like; the suggested layout is pictured above.

The player who rolls the highest number on the dice moves first. From the start, players can choose which direction around the board they wish to move. When a player lands on a space in a category's set of three, they must answer a trivia question from that category. If correct, they may place a marker of their color on that space. More than one marker can be on each space. To win, you must have ten markers on the board and at least three in one category (these do not have to all be on different spaces in that category). 

If a player is the first to have a marker on each of the three spaces in a category, they will "own" that category. If another player lands on a space on that category, they must remove one of their own markers and replace it with one belonging to the owner of the category. They may then answer a question as usual.

Follow special space instructions as directed.

Questions in Fringe Trivia range from the obvious to the stupidly hard. For balancing issues, spelling errors, questions invalidated by the series finale, or other problems, you can blame my dad, not me. I'll do my best to get the questions, answers, and board spaces uploaded somewhere and link to it here when I get the chance. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Video Games Are Better Than Books

Do I have your attention now? Before I explain why video games are better than books, I should probably explain what exactly I mean by that, and also what I don't mean. I don't mean that every game is better than every book or even that most games are better than most books. I do mean that video games as a medium have more potential for storytelling than books do. With that being the case, if a hypothetical perfect game and perfect book existed, I believe the perfect game would always be better, due to its higher potential for greatness. 

But let me explain why video games are better. The primary reason is because of the number and variety of tools that each medium has at its disposal; in other words, what can you do with it. Books can tell a story (or display information) in plain text and static images. Film increases this potential by having motion and sound, but comes at the expense of always moving at the same speed (you can't "speed read" a movie) and typically being shorter than a book in length (though this isn't the case with TV series). Video games add interactivity into the mix, and this one addition increases the potential for greatness even more than images, motion, and audio do. 

Interactivity lets you influence the story, or even if the story doesn't change, you can be the main character and experience the story in that new, immersive way. When you actually have to overcome the challenges along with your character, the potential for emotional connection to that character and catharsis at the end can be much greater than simply watching or reading about the character experiencing his or her story. Interactivity also regains the ability to go at your own pace, which movies lack. Games can also be long, like books, or even longer since they aren't limited by physical size; rather than carrying around a huge tome, you can have the whole thing digitally on a small handheld system, computer, or home console (though of course digital copies of books are now mainstream as well). 
The skits in the Tales series are optional, but often help to
develop the characters in interesting ways.
What's nice about the length in games, however, is that much of it can be optional. In a book, it wouldn't make sense to include conversations that characters could have had if they talked to certain people at certain times in certain places before continuing with the main story. Even if you wanted to read those kinds of minor side-stories, including them in the linear medium that books are wouldn't work without jumping from page to page or having fold-out flaps with additional information. Games allow you to interact with this side material as you see fit. Designers/authors can add things that might be interesting but not necessarily relevant to the plot, and the player can easily choose whether to view it or continue on with the main story. Telling a story with a game can have branching paths like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but it doesn't have to. Just being able to control your character, even if the story is predetermined, gives games an edge over books and movies.

But what if you don't want to play along and just want the story? While I personally think you'd be missing out by taking away much of the interactivity, I think that someone like my mom would much rather just watch the story unfold without needing to do much to push it along. If you are such a person, then you're in luck, because games have the potential to do that as well. In fact, the reason games are better than books is because games can effectively be books and can use as little or as much of the other innovations they have at their disposal as the designer/author wants. Take a look at text adventures for example. 
Zork, one of the most famous text adventure games.
They might not be as popular now, but many of the first computer games were interactive fiction in plain text. They functioned by describing the surroundings to you and then taking action based on the commands you typed in. I haven't played many of these, but already, that level of interactivity would give an author more to work with than a book would. While text adventures certainly aren't as popular as they used to be, HTML based interactive fiction still has its niche online and visual novels are incredibly popular in Japan at least, where many play/read them on their phones, computers, and handheld gaming systems. Visual novels take text adventures to a new level by adding graphics to represent the characters as they talk, backgrounds to show the location, and often music and voice acting. Their interactivity ranges from simply reading the story to choosing conversation options to solving puzzles in between the novel segments. As before, an author is free to use as much or as little additional features as they want, whether that is plain text or animated with voice acting. Either way, visual novels and other genres of games offer totally new methods and opportunities for storytelling, many of which have yet to fully reveal their potential. So if you consider the advantage of books to be that, as they are just text, they require imagination, consider that games can be the same way if the author so chooses.
Visual novels like 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors, blur the line between game and book.
As I expand my horizons of games I play, I find myself conflicted about whether I can use the word "play" at all. When the majority of a game is reading its story, is it really so different from reading a book? If the only thing you like about books is that they are contained in paper and binding, I'm afraid I can't help you there. If, however, you as a reader or as an author are interested in experiencing storytelling in an entirely new form, I highly recommend giving video "games" a look; their potential is only limited by your imagination.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Year of Gaming (2012) - Part 2

Just get here? Part one is this way.

Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) - It's no Mario Galaxy, but it's dang good. The levels range from easy to challenging, even for an experienced player. Even though beating everything as both Mario and Luigi and getting the top of the flag on every level to unlock the very last level is a bit of a cheap way to add replay value, it's fun enough that you probably won't mind. I also appreciated the addition of a record of your fastest time in each level.

Mario Kart 7 (3DS) - The tracks and racing are as fun as always but this game was clearly rushed. Single player consists exclusively of Grand Prix and Time Trials and doesn't offer much incentive to even do those. Playing online is a step above Mario Kart DS and offers more options than usual, but obvious and simple omissions of certain improvements are a bit frustrating. It's still fun, but I was disappointed at how the game seemed willing to settle for being average.

Kirby Air Ride (GCN) - I keep coming back to this game every couple years because it is just so darn fun. It's got three modes, and though they aren't exactly bursting with content, the achievement checklist gives you a lot to try for. The core gameplay is so addicting and enjoyable that I'm sure it's a game I'll keep coming back to in the future as well. Check out my full review of it here.

Mario Party 4, 5 (GCN) - For a couple weeks my friends and I got back into Mario Party and had some pretty epic games. When I was younger, I thought Mario Party was all about the minigames, but now I know that the most interesting things go down on the board itself. If I had to choose between Mario Party 4 and 5, I think I'd have to go with 4, only because the capsules in 5 can make things a bit too chaotic and even more random than usual.
Phoenix Wright: Justice for All (DS) -  I just finished this game and it's a lot like the first Phoenix Wright game, which is to say that it's awesome. Finding contradictions and presenting evidence is super satisfying and like no game I've ever played. I don't think the stories or puzzles are quite as good as those in the first one, but it's still pretty great.

Itadaki Street 2: Neon Sign wa Bara Iro ni (SNES) - This game was so unexpectedly fun that my friends and I played it for seven hours straight the first time we played. Basically, it's Monopoly with a stock market and more strategy. But it's more fun than that sounds. Check out the full review here.

Pokemon Black Version 2 (DS) - Pokemon just keeps getting better. Black 2 is loaded with content and the same great Pokemon battle system. Anyone who says that anything past the first generation sucks is just plain wrong. Black 2 and White 2 still aren't perfect, but they're getting pretty close.

Super Street Fighter IV (PS3) - I want to be good at this game, and it is pretty fun even without being good, but I can't think of any reason why the traditional fighting game controls which hinder me so should still be ok in modern gaming. There's nothing intuitive about rotating the control stick to attack and then using completely different controls for different characters. Even though it controls better than most fighting games, I still suck at it.

Kirby's Dream Collection (Wii) - Thanks to the Kirby cupcakes my girlfriend made me and the Kirby hat she got me for my birthday, I was able to win the Kirby's Biggest Fan contest on Facebook and get this collection for free. I already owned most of the games on it, but they're all good and the new challenge stages are especially fun. I was also impressed that it included episodes from the anime series and other Kirby related videos as well. This is a compilation disk done right.

Air Fortress (NES) - This old HAL Laboratory game consists of space shooter segments and on foot segments that are pretty unique. To summarize it succinctly, you have to kill Sauron with bacon. Check out the full review and let's play videos here.

Crash Team Racing (PS1) - The same friend who bought Twisted Metal to play on my PS3 also bought CTR to play on my PS2 this year. It was still as fun as we remembered and it made me realize how much room for improvement Mario Kart 7 had in the way of things to do single player. I'd really appreciate seeing the additional challenges that each track has in CTR in modern Mario Kart games. Oh, and then we made a video.

Fortune Street (Wii) - After having played Itadaki Street and loving it, I was eager to play the first English game in the series. The core game has hardly changed since the Famicom version, which is probably good, but I was a little disappointed that other, more obvious features weren't present after so many years of sequels. Things like saving mid-game in multiplayer (which was in the SNES version), only being able to share one controller or have one per person rather than sharing two or three between four people, and no compatibility with controllers besides Wii remotes, were all frustrating little things that kept this game from being the perfect sequel that it should've been. Still, as the only English version of the game, I recommend trying it out with some friends. My friends and I have certainly had a blast this year with it.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (PS3) - It's like an Indiana Jones movie in the form of a game. The gameplay consists of ducking behind cover and shooting, climbing on ruins, and sometimes driving vehicles (mostly jetskis). If you're into that sort of thing, you'll probably like it. The graphics are really nice too. In reality, the gameplay gets a little repetitive, but it's just short enough that you probably won't notice or mind until close to the end. Check out the full review here.

WipEout HD + Fury (PS3) - Among all the games I got for free after the PSN got hacked, I've played this the most by far. It isn't quite the same, but it's a good substitute for a modern F-Zero, especially if you add F-Zero music as your custom soundtrack. It has records for everything, lots of challenges, unlockable skins, and fun online multiplayer. WipEout HD is one of my favorite PS3 games, even after considering retail games. For fans of racing games, I highly recommend it.

Castle Crashers (PC) - I had been wanting to get this for PS3 for a while but was pleasantly surprised when a friend gifted it to me on Steam. I've yet to play it with friends, which I think would make it a whole lot more fun, but even alone it's a really enjoyable beat 'em up. The enemies and other characters are often hilarious and original, there are a fair number of moves, weapons, and characters to unlock, and being able to distribute your stats and have a helper creature are all sweet things that make this game special. If played with a group of friends, I'm sure Castle Crashers would be even more of a blast.

The Binding of Isaac (PC) - The themes and art direction of this game are either extremely sacrilegious or an extremely realistic depiction of what it'd look like if the depths of hell resided in one's basement. With that aside, I can't get enough of randomly generated dungeon crawlers so I'm loving this one. It's always interesting to see what things you'll find on the next playthrough and to figure out how to use them effectively. I haven't actually beaten the game yet, but it always feels like I could on the next attempt and that's what makes it so addicting. It even has multiple characters and challenge modes in addition to all the hidden items, so I'm amazed that at full price it's still only $5.

Playstation All-stars: Battle Royale (PS3) - The beta was too much fun; I had to request this as a Christmas present. Luckily, the full game is even more fun and has a decent amount of things to do for completionists (but don't expect to get a trophy for anything but the easiest of it). The only thing PlayStation All-Stars has in common with Super Smash Bros. is that it has characters from a variety of games and that the controls are similar. I stand by my opinion that the Smash Bros. engine is better designed and has more depth overall, but that doesn't mean that I think PlayStation All-Stars isn't fun. It's one of the most fun games I've played in a while and I think I'll be playing it for a long time.

There are also a couple games that didn't fall in any particular point in the year because I play them regularly throughout the year, every year. Those games are:

Audiosurf (PC) - Whenever I get new music, I like to play it in Audiosurf. It's more of a puzzle game than a rhythm game and it generates the falling tiles and track based on the song you play. There are a variety of vehicles that change the gameplay a little, so if you don't like the puzzle-style gameplay you can opt for simply dodging everything instead. Perhaps my favorite thing about Audiosurf though is that every song has an online high score list for each difficulty, so you can always feel like you're a winner by playing obscure songs that only a few others have played before you. Even without going for high scores, it's fun just to ride your music.

Super Smash Bros. Brawl (with Brawl+) (Wii) - The Super Smash Bros. series is probably my favorite series in gaming history. While none of the games are what I'd describe as the perfect game, they remain fun to play even years after their releases. In the case of Brawl, many were disappointed by the changes that made it more floaty, defense-oriented, and of course, the addition of tripping. I honestly still thought it was an improvement over Melee in spite of all that, but now there's a way to make it even better: hacks. Lately Project M has gotten relatively famous, but there are a few other sets of hacks that also aim to balance and tweak Brawl. The one I usually play is Brawl+, which speeds up the game and balances characters while still staying true to the original Brawl for the most part. I have no doubt that I'll continue to play Super Smash Bros. Brawl up until the sequel for Wii U comes out and perhaps even after.

Well, that's all for this year! Thanks for reading What They Call Games through the end of its first calendar year. I look forward to playing and writing about plenty of new games throughout 2013.

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