Wednesday, July 31, 2013

FTW: SpeedDemosArchive's Summer Games Done Quick raises over $250k for Doctors Without Borders

From July 25th through July 29th (and later, if you count the bonus stream), SpeedDemosArchive, a site that hosts high quality videos of hundreds of video game speed runs, held a marathon charity event to raise money for Doctors Without Borders. Runners came from all over to participate and ran over 75 different games throughout the marathon. At times, the stream was the most popular channel on Twitch, bringing in over 45,000 viewers at a time.

If you missed it, don't worry! You can still donate and, thanks to Reddit user malignantlyuseless, you can easily view the archived video of each run via the links below (copied from the Reddit thread). Also, over the next few months, SDA will be uploading footage from the marathon to its Youtube channel.

As for my personal recommendations... definitely check out anything by AdamAK, PEACHES_, Cosmo, iateyourpie, and Mofat. I've also heard that bonesaw's Luigi's Mansion run was especially good. Zoast's Super Metroid run was a thing of wonder, and though I didn't watch him during the marathon, I know that Toufool is extremely good at Diddy Kong Racing. If in doubt, just check a game you know and see how it goes. Every run is an impressive display of skill and interesting glitches, so enjoy!


For bonus stream footage, check out LasTLiE2's comment on Reddit.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why do I own this GBA racing wheel?

I have no memory of purchasing the Rally Racer Racing Wheel for GameBoyAdvance by Pelican Accessories, but I very much hope that I made the purchase at a yard sale for an extremely small sum of money. It is, without a doubt, the most pointless gaming accessory that I own, and not just because there are hardly any racing games worth playing on GBA.

The accessory is such that pressing buttons or turning the wheel will mechanically press the buttons on the GameBoyAdvance at the same time. It works, but the buttons need to be pressed a bit further than you'd expect in order to result in an actual button press. Also seen here is one of the now partially detached rubber grips that runs along the bottom of the wheel to keep it from sliding across the table when you try to use it.

The GBA pops in easily and locks in with the little notches intended for accessories like this. Pelican did something right by leaving the expansion port, headphone jack, and volume controls open and accessible.

The grip is comfortable for the most part, but in addition to the button responsiveness issues mentioned above, there's also an issue with pressing the L and R buttons. For L and R, you'll have your fingers resting on the actual buttons of the console as you would normally. This seems like a good thing at first, until you realize that turning the wheel does not turn the GBA, which means your fingers will be sliding back and forth over the L and R buttons, making them rather awkward to press while turning. 

Also, it may be due to age, but the wheel sticks a bit while turning. This means you'll have to turn the wheel harder and faster in order to get past the dead zone of it not pressing left or right. Herein lies the biggest reason why this product is unnecessary: the GBA's D-Pad is digital rather than analog, so there's no easing into a turn with the wheel. Either you're going left, straight, or right - there's no in between. This isn't a problem when playing normally because it's so easy to tap left and right on the D-Pad with your thumb, but with this racing wheel you need to turn it all the way to one side or the other to change directions. All it does is put you at a huge disadvantage while not giving any advantages in return.
So remember kids, if you're going to get a racing wheel accessory, don't get it for a console that only has digital directional input.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Improvements to Mario Kart That You Don't Need Shrooms to See Are Good Ideas

(Image sources: 1, 2)
I love Mario Kart. Perhaps that's why the series' shortcomings are so frustrating to me. Sure, the controls are always solid, the tracks are fun, and playing with friends never gets old, but Mario Kart is also wasting a huge amount of untapped potential. 

Every iteration, all we get are new tracks, a new selection of characters, a gradually improving multiplayer mode, and minor gimmicks that do little to change the game in any significant way (motorcycles, gliders, underwater, vehicle customization, anti-gravity). All of that is certainly nice, but every Mario Kart consists essentially of just Grand Prix, Time Trials, and multiplayer (with the exception of Mario Kart DS which had Mission Mode). "Well, of course," I hear you say, "What else would there be?" To which I must reply, "Have you no imagination? Have you not played other kart racing games? Mario Kart could and should be so much more than what it currently is."

Fine then. Let me tell you how to make Mario Kart better, so that currently available versions will seem as though mere shells of games.

More to do offline and more reason to do it
This is perhaps my biggest complaint and suggestion, right off the bat. As I mentioned above, the only things to do offline in Mario Kart as of now are Grand Prix and Time Trials. Yes, you could race against bots in battle mode I guess, but that'd be boring. Honestly, playing the same tracks over and over at different speeds for Grand Prix mode and trying for three stars isn't the most fun thing either, but it's a good, basic, starting point for the game. The main motivation for going through all this is to unlock all the tracks and characters and to get stars next to your name online. Then we have Time Trials, an essential part of any racing game. Setting amazing records can be its own reward, but you can also try to unlock and beat staff ghosts here. 

The problem is, those two modes are still rather bare bones and boring. That doesn't mean we need to get rid of them, it just means there need to be minor changes and something else worth doing offline in Mario KartOne of the best ways to increase a game's replayability is to have as many unlockables as possible. We've got vehicles, characters, staff ghosts, and tracks, but we could have alternate costumes, music, trophies, online badges, and more. Look what the achievement grid did for the otherwise content-starved Kirby Air Ride (the achievement grid also returned in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Kid Icarus: Uprising). That game had hardly anything to do on its own, but it had solid gameplay and a buttload of random challenges to do throughout each mode because of the achievement grids. The goal doesn't always have to be finishing first; why not have minor goals for finding shortcuts, winning without items, or performing a certain number of turbo boosts during the race. It should go without saying that grinding for coins to unlock stuff, as in Mario Kart 7, is a terrible idea.
An achievement grid for each mode is an easy way to increase replayability.
Now that I'm thinking about it, why don't we just have Sakurai make the next Mario Kart.
Time Trials is good as it is, but its rewards need to be better and more clear. If there are going to be unlockable staff ghosts, make a show out of it so the average player knows that it's something to shoot for. Sprinkle some of the normal unlockables in this mode too so it doesn't just get ignored. 

Grand Prix is fine and all, but it shouldn't be the focus of single player. Oh yeah, I went there. I can't be the only one who thinks playing the same tracks over and over against bots isn't the most fun thing ever. Well it turns out that other kart racing games figured this out a while ago. Diddy Kong Racing, Crash Team Racing, and ModNation Racers all have Mario Kart beat in the single player fun department. Why? Because they take things one race at a time and make a big deal about collecting whatever is required to open up the next races. But the biggest reason is that they don't simply have you racing for first every time; there are also alternate challenges for each level such as collecting ten coins hidden along the track and still finishing first or racing against bosses who drop hazards. And when you play tracks one by one, you can make the difficulty higher without being frustrating, since you'll only have to replay one track instead of the whole grand prix if you lose. Mario Kart doesn't need a story mode for the story, but it could certainly use one for the variety of challenge and the feeling of progression and achievement.
Diddy Kong Racing, 1997, still a better single player mode than modern Mario Kart.
Also a track editor and the ability to share tracks online. Please and thank you.

More things to do on the same tracks and Sakurai's ever popular achievement grid are my biggest requests for future Mario Kart games, but my suggestions don't end there.

Thank your lucky starman, multiplayer in Mario Kart is improving. In fact, it's actually pretty darn good now, but there are still some baffling omissions. I won't spend much time here because there aren't that many changes to suggest and because most people who have played Mario Kart games online already know what sort of things need to be improved.

First, we've got the minor stuff. When playing with friends, it should be easier to communicate with people instead of just using preset phrases. 3DS and Wii U have microphones and cameras built in now, can't we incorporate those into the game, at least in lobbies? Seeing my opponents' faces on the side of the screen would be an awesome touch too, just to see how ticked they are to lose to a blue shell at the last minute. Then, in Mario Kart 7, any one person could start a race going from the lobby when playing with friends or communities. It's as if the developers haven't played any other online games (I wouldn't doubt that being the case, honestly). Is it too much to ask to make one person the host or to vote to start?

Mario Kart needs an item switch too.
Of course, the biggest thing everyone wants is more options, specifically a Smash Bros style item switch. The online communities in Mario Kart 7 let you choose certain item sets, but for some strange reason didn't let you choose exactly which items you wanted to be available. Or how about an option to limit which tracks can come up when you select random? There's not much else to say about that. It should be a given to put as many options as possible in a multiplayer game, but apparently it's not. It doesn't have to be just for items either, you might want to toggle some of the other suggestions I have to make...

In the gameplay department
Gameplay in Mario Kart is generally solid, but it could still learn a thing or two from other kart racing games. The motorcycles, gliders, and driving underwater were hardly worth mentioning and certainly weren't revolutionary changes to the franchise. And Mario Kart 8's gravity defying tracks? That's essentially just aesthetic, so big whoop. (Update: It turns out that MK8's anti-gravity does add a small gameplay innovation in the form of bumping other racers for a boost.) Reintroducing coins for a slight max speed increase or drafting behind competitors, those were some steps in the right direction. 

When it comes to kart racing gameplay, ModNation Racers probably has it best (which makes up for its egregiously long load times and forgettable art direction)*. It has a meter that fills up from drifting, doing tricks, and whatever else. This can then be used to either boost or to deploy a shield to guard against incoming attacks. The items work similarly to Diddy Kong Racing in that you can hang onto an item and get another one to power up the one you currently have.
The golden standard of kart racing gameplay, customization, and how long not to make loading times.
Now admittedly, Mario Kart's target demographic is absolutely everyone, so that means it has to keep things relatively simple. ModNation Racers' boost / shield meter would probably present too much of a learning curve for younger players and I don't see that being added to the game, as much as I'd love a way to consistently block blue shells. An item block redesign, on the other hand, would be very doable.
What kind of item do you want? It's up to you!
The other way to tone down Mario Kart's randomness problem is to color code the item blocks. Certain colors would always contain boosts or defensive items or offensive items, which could still be given out semi-randomly according to your position in the race (i.e. someone in first place isn't likely to get a triple red shell from an offensive item block). This simple change would give players an extra bit of control and strategy in how they play the game. Leveling up items by collecting more of the same type of block would also be a nifty feature. Of course, since we added in all those options earlier, you'd still be able to revert to simple mode, where every block can give every item as is currently the standard in Mario Kart games.

And one last thing: this game could stand to be a bit faster. No one wants to play on 50cc, but even 150cc is a bit slower than I'd like. I know this isn't F-Zero, but some increase in vehicle speed would certainly be welcome.

Ok, but what about...
What? Snaking and rubber-banding AI? Yeah, I wasn't going to mention those because I don't think they're as big of a deal as people make them out to be and talking about them only makes people argue about stupid stuff instead of more important stuff. But fine, my opinion is that rubber-banding AI is fine and that snaking is simply being very good at doing turbo boosts and there's nothing wrong with that. The only reason I prefer a turbo boost system that doesn't involve mashing left and right repeatedly is because I don't want to wear out my controller or my thumbs.

*ModNation Racers does have some flaws in its gameplay as well, but it's still very good overall. I've also heard that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is good, but I haven't had the chance to try it myself.

Alright, so did I miss anything? Think I'm full of crap? Let me hear it in the comments!

Also check out "Improvements to Pokemon that GameFreak Doesn't Have the [Poke]Balls to Make" and "Building the Next F-Zero"!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Home Alone (NES) - The sound of your enjoyment falling down the stairs

Platform: NES   Genre: Hide and Seek?   Release: October, 1991
Home Alone (the movie) is a heartwarming tale of a boy who is forgotten by his parents and then screws with the burglars who break into his house. The video game adaptation for NES is pretty much like that too, since receiving this horrible game could only be a result of your parents not loving you. The screwing with burglars part comes in the game itself.

As a kid, I didn't really catch most of the jokes in the Home Alone movies; all I cared about were the pranks and traps that Kevin set for the Wet Bandits, which were usually elaborate and cringe-tastically brutal. You'd think that a video game that took this most violent and exciting part from the movies would be at least a little bit fun... but it's not. 

Instead of elaborate traps, all you need to do is pick up an object with one button and put it down with another button. Having done so, you will have successfully laid a trap. There's no way of being creative with these traps, as they are all just squares with different icons inside them. Some of the traps that you can put down are recognizable from the movie, but it's hard to tell what others even are or how they would be helpful.
I recognize the tarantula, but what's a light bulb going to do for me?
Actually having Harry and Marv fall into your carefully laid traps is equally unsatisfying. No matter what the trap is, if they touch it, they fall down in a heap and are stunned for a short time. 
That green tank with the three dots above it is Marv after being hit with a tarantula.
The green tank on the right, I mean. The green stuff on the left is bushes.
The game laboriously continues until you are captured or until you survive for twenty minutes. That's right, if you're good, you can finish the whole game in twenty minutes. But not just any twenty minutes, these twenty minutes will be spent running around the same one level, because the entire game takes place in the McCallisters' three story house, its basement, and the tree fort in the yard. Interestingly, the tree fort, basement, and house interior each have their own music tracks, which is better than only one music track I guess.
Here's the map, with Atari-style bars representing each character and trap.
They'll never know!
Apart from laying traps, you're also able to evade capture by hiding in certain background objects. This method is fairly unreliable and you'll probably only use it as a last ditch effort to escape, but it's perhaps the coolest thing to do in the game. Not knowing whether your hiding spot will actually work is kind of like playing Amnesia, except that Amnesia is actually well designed. In Home Alone, you don't really know how long a trap will stun the bad guys, whether or not hiding will work, where the burglars are at any given time, or whether you're standing in just the right spot necessary to climb the stairs. For how meager the content in this game is, you'd think that it would at least be well-polished, but it's really not. In fact, your best bet for winning the game is to find a loop to get the enemy AI stuck in, so you can just do the same thing over and over until the twenty minutes are up.

The final word:
This game is bad. Really bad. It's even worse than it looks in this review. The explorable area is small and the gameplay is unsatisfying and awkward. It probably would have been more fun as a multiplayer game of tag or hide and seek, though I don't know how that would have worked on NES. As it is, even if you do manage to help Kevin protect his home from the burglars, if you paid money for this piece of crap game, you're the one who got robbed.

This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Previous: Bonkers (Genesis) Next: Felix the Cat (NES)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bonkers - Where toons go to die

Platform: Genesis  Genre: Minigame Collection   Release: October 1st, 1994
Sometimes I like to go on Craigslist and see what used games are for sale. Whenever I do this, I'm consistently appalled by the choice in games that parents buy for their kids and then resell. Even with the buttloads of fantastic games available on every console, they still manage to pick out the worst and most obviously bad shovelware on the market. I find myself feeling grateful that I somehow ended up with good games when I was a kid; classics like Metroid, Super Mario Bros., Kirby's Adventure, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Even when I got games based on TV shows and movies, I seemed to luck out. I had Ducktales and Felix the Cat for NES and Mickey's Dangerous Chase on Game Boy, all great games. But after thinking back a little harder, I realized that I too had some pretty crappy games. One such crappy game was Bonkers for Sega Genesis.

Bonkers was based on the animated TV series which featured Bonkers as an anthropomorphic bobcat detective. I had to look that up, because he definitely doesn't look like a bobcat. Anyway, in the game, Bonkers is trying to catch four different villains while his partner is away on vacation in order to impress him and become Officer of the Month. What this means in the gameplay department is four minigames, one for each villain. The more you complete, the more your rank goes up.
When the four villains chosen to represent the show are
half rodents and half talking objects, it can't be a good sign.
Each game has slightly more depth than a Mario Party minigame and consists of a seemingly endless number of nearly identical versions of the same game. Each stage does get gradually harder, occasionally introducing slight variations and new elements to the game, but after a few minutes of any of them you'll probably start wishing for something to kill you so you can stop playing without needing to quit. It's nice that they get harder, but they still aren't much fun.

Ms. Frizzle probably stole the Magic
 Schoolbus from the Bonkers universe.
Ma Tow Truck's game has your racing down endlessly repeating streets and intersections and destroying her evil vehicular minions with oil and gum, which can be dropped behind you or shot ahead of you, respectively. Ammo is limited though, so if you run out, you'll have to wait for a refill from a helicopter. After you destroy all the bad guys, Ma Tow Truck will appear. Defeating her ends the stage, though she'll miraculously be back for the next stage. As you progress, some of the other cars will attack back and become immune to certain attacks. This only serves to make the game more annoying. Also, the controls suck.

Of course the bomb has eyes.
I expected nothing less.
Mr. Big's levels are inside this warehouse. You have to run around and smash boxes and barrels to try to find all the parts of a rabbit before the bomb explodes. You'll be able to tell which boxes have the parts you need because they'll jump occasionally. Sometimes enemies will appear, but you can smash them by sliding boxes at them. Basically, it's a memory game mixed with Pac Man.

All in all, it's just another
 brick in the wall.
The Rat's minigame is just about throwing bricks until they magically become a wall. The magic happens when you complete a full column of bricks, making it become permanent. Until then, bad guys can run across and remove the bricks. You'll also have to dodge whatever crap that junkyard robot is chucking at you. The stage ends when the wall is complete. I'm not really sure why building brick walls solves anything, but at least we're being constructive in a game for once.

Harry didn't chose the bag life.
The bag life chose him.
Harry the Handbag's level is probably the least fun of the bunch. In it, you have to run back and forth throwing donuts at thieves in order to protect the museum's treasures. That's really about all there is to it.

...Wait, is that seriously an apple with a bite out of it? Why do we even care if that gets stolen?!

Presumably the games end eventually, but I didn't stick around long enough to find out. For a game this boring, you aren't going to want to play for more than a few minutes at a time. Lucky for you, there's a password system in place for you to record your progress. Unlucky for you, the passwords consist of difficult-to-write-down pictures like parachuting dynamite, stop signs, living pogo sticks, soda cans, and other objects that would probably put you on the NSA's watch list if you were to discuss them publicly.

The final word:
I've played worse games, but Bonkers just isn't very fun. It's nice that the minigames do get gradually harder and more complicated, but by the time they do, you'll be too bored to care. I can only assume that Bonkers does eventually succeed in becoming Officer of the Month, but I don't think I'll be losing any sleep over not knowing for sure. Do yourself a favor and don't bother with this game.

This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Previous: Mickey's Dangerous Chase Next: Home Alone

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mickey's Dangerous Chase - Some of the Best Platforming on the Block

Platform: Game Boy   Genre: Platforming   Release: May, 1991 (US)
Let me tell you about this game for Game Boy called Mickey's Dangerous Chase. I won't blame you for not having heard of it, though if you have heard of it, I expect that it's only by chance. I, also by chance, acquired this game when I was younger. It's possible that I'm wrong though, and it was more popular than I thought; according to Wikipedia it was one of the first Player's Choice games. You might expect a game based on Mickey Mouse to be crappy shovelware like most TV and movie based games are nowadays, but back in the day, many of these games were actually good.

Blocks aren't just weapons; they're
platforms and obstacles too.
Mickey's Dangerous Chase is actually good. Well, it's decent anyway. It's a pretty standard platforming game whose main distinguishing feature is the ability to pick up and throw blocks at enemies. The block-throwing mechanic isn't terribly groundbreaking, but it's better than simply running and jumping and it sometimes results in mini-puzzles since the blocks can also act as platforms or barriers before being picked up and thrown.

Why don't you help instead of just
standing around, Goofy?

The levels take you through a variety of locations that aren't the typical locales in gaming, including a factory, run down shack, city street, and roof tops. Your motivation for doing all this is that Big Bad Pete stole Mickey's present for Minnie, resulting in the chase referred to in the title. A nifty feature is that you can play as either Mickey or Minnie in this game, though they both control the same as far as I can tell. At the end of each level, you'll meet Goofy, who will tell you where he saw Pete running off to next in a short dialogue. Goofy's presence at the end of each level and knowledge of Pete's whereabouts does make me wonder how he always gets back ahead of Mickey so quickly and why he doesn't just catch Pete himself instead of waiting at the end of every level. In spite of always just missing Pete, our trio of heroes always remains optimistic that "if we hurry, we can catch him". They do of course, but it takes fifteen levels divided into five sets of three to do it.

I'm on a boat!
Not all of these levels are platforming; some of them are differently controlled forced-scroll levels in which you ride a boat, a car, or balloons. These levels are generally fun (except for a few enemies that are all but undodgeable unless you know they're coming) and offer a nice break in the platforming action. There is no save feature or password system in this game, but there are unlimited continues which bring you back to the beginning of the stage (set of three levels). Thankfully, some of the harder levels provide methods of getting 1-ups on every attempt, so you won't have to keep playing the last three levels every time you get game over. It's also worth noting that the levels do not have any checkpoints, so if you die, you'll have to start all over. Most of the levels aren't too long, but a few are just long enough that dying just before the end can be a bit annoying. 

I wouldn't go into all this detail about game overs normally, but this game's difficulty gets significantly higher than you'd expect for a Mickey Mouse game. Only the most experienced and cautious players will make it through this game without a game over on their first try. The difficulty is rarely unfair, but there were instances where taking a higher path would force me to make a blind jump at some point and the forced scroll level near the end of the game unfortunately required more trial and error and memorization than I would have liked. Still, for the most part this game's level design is fun, fair, and challenging, if a bit too challenging for younger players to finish.

The graphics and music are both a step above the average Game Boy game. Enemies and objects are large and distinct enough to easily distinguish and each level's enemies, platforms, and backgrounds suit the locale and are unique to that level. I'm not familiar enough with Mickey Mouse to know whether the game's soundtrack is original, but it's pretty consistently good and has some memorable tunes.

The final word:
If you like retro platforming games, you'd probably enjoy Mickey's Dangerous Chase. It's not the best game I've ever played, but it's certainly good enough to be worth playing if you ever have the chance. If you can't do that, check out my playthrough to see what you're missing!
This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Next up is Bonkers for Sega Genesis.
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