Monday, August 26, 2013

5 Life Lessons I Learned from Gaming

Look before you leap.
Whether due wonky camera angles or your own stupidity, you can't be a gamer without falling in a few bottomless pits. But that doesn't mean you can't take some precautions. The best precaution you can take in situations like this is to actually watch where you're freaking going. In most cases you won't have to worry about lava, spikes, and bottomless pits in real life (it could happen though!), but you could at least stop texting while walking to avoid falling into the fountain at the mall. Also, be sure to carefully judge whether you can survive the fall damage when jumping off of cliffs and buildings. The same logic applies, of course, to major life changing decisions. I don't care how traditional your upbringing is, it's probably a good idea to at least look at your future spouse before you leap into marriage.

Hoard everything.
I don't know what a Bacchus is, but I'm afraid to use it or sell it. (Source)
Who knew that piddly stick from the beginning of the game would turn into the ultimate weapon? Or that those consumable attack items I never use would actually be the next boss's weakness, or that there was only one of those TMs in Pokemon and I just wasted it on a Dunsparce? Well the internet knew, but I didn't think or care enough to check ahead of time. That's why I've learned to just hoard as many items as I can carry in my inventory, never using or selling anything, until at last I finish the game without ever using half of the stuff because of my stinginess. ...On second thought, maybe this lesson should be about using things when the opportunity presents itself. Nah, it's much safer just to hoard it.

For a real life example, I only need to recall how I sold my NES, Virtual Boy, and several of my best N64 games as a kid. Woe was me, filled with regret. I've since had to purchase another NES and Virtual Boy to fill that void in my life. Then there's all the digital hoarding taking place on my computer. I know I haven't listened to this music since my friend gave it to me three years ago, but maybe I'll want to one of these days, you know?

Jack of all trades, master of none.
I have no idea if these stats are good or not.
If I learned anything from my time playing MMOs, it's that if your character doesn't specialize in something, it's going to be useless once you get to the level cap. Going on a high level raid, your comrades are going to want a dedicated healer, buffer, tank, or character designed for high DPS, not someone who tries to do all those things and does a crappy job of it.

What does this mean for real life? It means I freaking hate general education requirements in college. What the heck does the history of western civilization have to do with computer science anyway? It has to do with making you pay twice as much in time and money for a bundle deal of mostly useless classes, that's what. Screw you, average university. Trade schools are where it's at (probably, maybe, I don't actually know, don't take advice from a gaming blog).

Beasts are most dangerous when cornered.
So maybe the lesser enemies are all too willing to impale themselves upon your sword, but when it comes to bosses, they always seem to get stronger when they realize they're in a tough spot. I always thought this was counter intuitive. Shouldn't it be weaker now that's it's injured or use its strongest attacks from the beginning? Nope, that's not how it works. Bosses (in games and real life) freak the heck out when you start killing them and that freaking out gives them power.

I wasn't sure whether this carried over to real life or not, but one day, having been inspired by the many reality TV shows about pest control and hillbillies wrangling animals, I decided to make it my goal to catch all of the world's raccoons and found out for sure. It turns out that raccoons actually transform into super saiyans and shoot laser beams when cornered. Who knew!

When you get a TNT crate on your head, start hopping immediately.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Need for Speed: Most Wanted U - Sequel to Burnout Paradise

Let me just say right off the bat that I have never played a Need for Speed game and have never been interested in playing one. I guess my lack of interest was always because running from cops seemed like a hassle (and made me feel like a bad guy) and because I've just never had much interest in cars. As such, I was drawn to less realistic racing games like Mario Kart, F-Zero, and Burnout instead. Burnout led me all the way up to Burnout Paradise, which, while different from previous games and certainly not perfect, kept me entertained for a long time thanks to its focus on exploration and open-endedness. And thus I progressed to Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which is undeniably more of a sequel to Burnout Paradise than it is a Need for Speed game (or so I've heard from people who have played Need for Speed games). But that's just fine with me.
Wii U's option for offscreen play leaves the TV HUD-free.
Essentially, you've got a nice big city to drive around as you wish and it's filled with billboards and security gates to smash, cars and jack spots to find, speed cameras to trigger, and five challenges to complete for each vehicle. The game keeps track of how many of each thing you've found, encouraging you to go for 100% completion. The road rules, crash mode, and super jumps from Burnout Paradise are gone, but now each billboard tracks stats of your biggest jump through the billboard. Also compared to Burnout Paradise, Most Wanted's controls feel better (I don't spin out when starting any more), takedowns feel less satisfying (a light tap can cause a takedown while strong rams don't, and there's no takedown cam), and crashes in general are less spectacular. Also, now that this Burnout Paradise sequel is a Need for Speed game, cops are in. They feel like a rather unnecessary element though, since there's essentially no penalty for being busted.

Due to its open-ended nature, there isn't a whole lot of structure to the game except for the goal of racing and wrecking each of the ten Most Wanted racers (plus one more in the Wii U version). To be able to race them, you have to accumulate points according to your notoriety. You get these points for doing just about everything, including finding the collectibles mentioned above and escaping the cops, but mostly by completing the races and challenges for each vehicle. If you're like me, you'll have a few of the Most Wanted races unlocked before even trying. These races aren't really much more exciting than any other race except that the police chase you more aggressively and the difficulty is a bit higher. Sure, you also unlock their cars for winning, but you already have every single other car at your disposal from the start (assuming you can find them in the city), so it's not that big of a deal to unlock the Most Wanted cars.

Check out some HD footage from three of my offline races!

As for the normal challenges with each car, these are mostly races, but there are also challenges to escape pursuing police cars or to get the highest average speed that you can over a particular distance. The races are definitely a step above those in Burnout Paradise, which were always racing to one of several locations around the edges of the map. In contrast, the races in Most Wanted take you on more interesting routes through the city, with easily visible checkpoints and a helpful GPS minimap in the corner of the screen. Coming in first or second place in one of these challenges unlocks upgrades for that car which you can equip easily from the EasyDrive menu (from which you do pretty much everything) while driving or immediately after the race. Unfortunately, the upgrades are the same for each vehicle and essentially just give you the choice of sacrificing speed for off-road ability, top speed for acceleration, or speed for durability. The option is nice, but it's quickly obvious that the vehicle customization is very limited. Besides that, if you were hoping to make your car look good, you'll be disappointed to know that all you can change is its color and license plate. It is worth noting, however, that the upgrades unlocked from the challenges can be upgraded further by using them and completing some of the multitude of milestones in the game. For example, you can get rewarded for driving a certain distance in oncoming traffic with a certain upgrade equipped with a certain vehicle. There are general achievements like this for the main game, for each vehicle, and another whole set of achievements and unlockables for online multiplayer.

It's nice that there's so much to do, but since you can do it almost any order, it means that the sense of progression is a little out of whack. Just as you're getting good with one vehicle, having progressed through its easy, medium, and hard challenges, you'll find that you're out of challenges and need to move onto a new car, once again going through easy, medium, and hard. Apart from the Most Wanted races, the difficulty doesn't and can't really progress with your skill level and, instead, oscillates between easy and difficult.
The Wii U version also makes use of Miis for previously smashed billboards.
Online multiplayer surprisingly brought a bit more variety in challenges, which made me wonder why these things weren't also challenges in single player. I guess it's probably because of their simplicity; many are simply competing to get the most air off of a particular jump or racing around a shorter figure-8 track. The challenges come in sets, so you can compete to be first overall. Between each challenge, you'll be notified of the next meet-up point and getting there becomes a race in itself. As mentioned, online multiplayer has its own set of achievements and unlockables, meaning that your accomplishments in single player won't carry over here. Instead, you'll earn upgrades and new vehicles by completing milestones and simply by playing more. There are also many unlockable designs for your license plate which are shown off whenever you take down an opponent. Playing online requires a free account through Origin. Also, the police are mysteriously absent from the online mode, though this offers a welcome break from their somewhat repetitive radio chatter. The bigger disappointment is that, once again, there is no offline multiplayer. Boo.

Alright, so, how does the Wii U version compare to the other versions, you ask? Like this:
On Wii U:
 + Miiverse integration
 + Everyone has a microphone, though most don't seem to use it.
 + Slightly better graphics, or so I've heard.
 + Includes the Ultimate Speed Pack (5 extra cars, 25 challenges, and 70 milestones)
 + Offscreen play
 + Options on Gamepad to switch day to night, turn off traffic, and disrupt cops
 - Availability of other DLC is dependent on this version's sales, making it unlikely.
 - Online multiplayer only supports six players instead of eight.
 - Wii U has no console-integrated achievements.
 - Wii U GamePad has digital buttons
 - Can't add a custom soundtrack
The final word:
Need for Speed: Most Wanted U is incredibly fun, but it isn't for everyone. If you need more direction in your games, you might find yourself just wandering around, wondering what the point is of it all. Furthermore, if vehicle customization is important to you, Most Wanted is going to leave you disappointed. If, on the other hand, you just want a sequel to Burnout Paradise, this is the game for you. It has some room for improvement, but it's still a darn good game in its own right.

Are you a fan of racing games? Maybe you'd be interested in the improvements I'd make to Mario Kart or the criminally overlooked Excitebots.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Super Solvers - Detectives of indoor recess

Apart from a few old computer games that I got from my elementary school's book order catalog that I still can't remember the names of or find, the most obscure and forgotten games from my childhood have got to be the Super Solvers games. They were a series of educational computer games by The Learning Company, which also produced the more well-known Oregon Trail

There were six games in the Super Solvers series, but as far as I can remember, I only played two of them. I was in my early years of elementary school and there were few things more exciting than indoor recess on a rainy day. Of course, the most coveted spot during indoor recess was in front of the classroom computer. Without access to the computer, I was reduced to crawling around on the floor and collecting used staples. But if I was fast enough to get the computer, I could play Super Solvers: Midnight Rescue! or Gizmos & Gadgets!! Even though I had better, more recent, games at home, I still enjoyed playing them.

Anyway, let's take a look at these two nearly forgotten pieces of my childhood.

Midnight Rescue! (Gameplay video)
In this game, Morty Maxwell, the Master of Mischief, means to maliciously make a school disappear using magic paint and mecha-paintbrush miscreants by midnight. Only you, a faceless guy with spotted shorts and a hip hat, can stop this evil plot by collecting clues acquired from answering reading comprehension questions and snapping pictures of the robots that are running amok in the school. 
Each time you play, the locations and content of the clues seem to be randomized and the appearance of the robots is random as well. The randomness doesn't matter too much though, since you can pretty much be sure that every room will contain a clue. Essentially, the clues are just words that corresponded to things the guilty robot (actually, the Master of Mischief in disguise) is holding or doing. Each game has four clues and five robots. By comparing the clues you have with the pictures of the robots that you take, you can narrow down who is and isn't responsible and eventually make your accusation.
The camera's range and ammo is limited.
But don't think this is all just screwing around; you have a limited amount of film, so it's important not to miss when taking pictures of robots. Not only that, but as you play, the clock will get closer and closer to midnight. If you don't finish by then, you lose! Graciously, the timer pauses during the reading sections and there are film refill stations in the hallways, but these can only be used after finding a clue. I never did understand why I would want to stop a school from disappearing in the first place. Even still, the time limit and limited film stressed me out a bit as a kid.
Both this and Gizmos & Gadgets! feature an account system so that many different users can sign in and track their progress. In this game, each time you win a round, your points are added to your total and you can level up. The more you play, the harder it gets. On later levels, you'll have to take multiple pictures of each robot in order to reveal each of the four clues on it. For an educational game, it's not as bad as you might expect. The random elements, ranking system, and gradually increasing difficulty keep it entertaining enough to play again during the next indoor recess.

Gizmos & Gadgets! (Gameplay video)
Released a few years after Midnight Rescue!, Gizmos & Gadgets! is a few steps ahead in quality and variety. This time, Dr. Wily Morty has taken over the Technology Center. The only way to beat him is to prove that you're a better scientist than him by building better vehicles than him and beating him in races. The races are divided into three sections of five races each based on the type of vehicle used. You can jump between the three sections freely, but as you progress in each, the vehicles and puzzles will get more complicated. 
The meat of the game isn't really building and racing the vehicles, but finding the parts for them. You do that by exploring maze-like warehouses and picking up the parts as you go. It's not as easy as simply picking up the parts though; the warehouse doors are locked with science puzzles and Morty's minions, globe-shaped chimps, will try to attack and steal your parts. 
The chimps are dealt with easily enough by throwing bananas at them. The puzzle doors aren't all that difficult either - at least not to start. They have a variety of puzzles including arranging magnets to fit a pattern, balancing weights, launching differently weighted objects to land in certain places, completing electrical circuits, arranging gears, and identifying simple machines. As you progress through the game, the same kinds of puzzles are used, but their difficulty increases.
When collecting vehicle parts, you can see how many you have left to find, but even if you have one of each part, you won't necessarily win the race. Instead, you can try to find the best version of each kind of part. Which version is the best isn't always obvious unless you know something about physics and engineering, but experimenting with it is part of the fun. When exploring, you can only hold two of each part, so if you find a third, you can either leave it or swap it with one of the two you already have. Once you think you have good enough parts, you can go back to the garage to build your vehicle. Most of the parts serve an obvious purpose (you can't have a car without wheels and an engine) but you can also change the paint color and add decals. 
Once you finish choosing the parts for your vehicle, it's off to the racetrack. You won't have any actual control in the race, but you won't have to wait long to see whether you won or not either. The races are short and simple, and you can usually tell who will win based on whose vehicle pulls ahead at the beginning, though in the case of airplanes, one may be faster at taking off, but slower in the air. If you win, you receive a trophy to add to your collection and your winning vehicle will be proudly displayed in the parking lot in the main menu.

As a kid, this game was where it was at, at least during indoor recess. I enjoyed exploring the warehouses, finding parts, building vehicles, and seeing my progress by the trophies and vehicles displayed in plain view. The platforming controls may not have been nearly as solid as a Mario game, but I still had fun with both Gizmos & Gadgets! and Midnight Rescue!. Maybe I even learned something at the same time. 

Educational games get a lot of flak from most gamers, but they don't have to be so terrible. In fact, maybe educators could learn a thing or two from video games about how to make learning more engaging and satisfying. At the very least, playing these games is certainly better for kids than watching TV all day.

This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Previous: Felix the Cat (NES)
For another old, obscure computer game, check out Taco Bell: Tasty Temple Challenge!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Animal Crossing Plaza - Details and HD gameplay

Today's Nintendo Direct revealed a new Animal Crossing app for Wii U, Animal Crossing Plaza. It's similar to the Wii U's home screen, Wara Wara Plaza, but it is instead populated with characters from Animal Crossing. It's primary purpose is to provide an interesting gateway into the new Animal Crossing Miiverse communities and to provide a way to easily share your screenshots from the game on Miiverse. You're also able to make a profile for yourself and list your town name, character name, favorite Animal Crossing character, and dream suite ID. Screenshots can be easily uploaded and organized into albums by inserting your 3DS's SD card into the Wii U. Images on your Wii U can then be posted to Miiverse from there or can be categorized by character if you select a character from the plaza.

There isn't a whole lot to this app, but without a 3DS version of Miiverse available yet, it's the best way to post about your adventures in Animal Crossing. Seeing all the characters in HD is also a plus. The app is available for free and will be functional through 2014. 
Note: Most interaction and menus are viewed only on the GamePad.
During the Nintendo Direct, this was announced after noting all the regions where Animal Crossing: New Leaf is currently available. While it is possible to view Miiverse posts from other regions through this app and during regular Miiverse use, both the Wii U and Animal Crossing: New Leaf still do not allow typing in characters from languages in other regions, both the 3DS and Wii U are still region locked, and the player character in Animal Crossing still can't be naturally dark skinned. Hopefully, in the future, Nintendo will get fully on board with uniting its worldwide market. Pokemon X and Y's worldwide release seems to be a step in the right direction.

Update: I took some HD screenshots that would make good wallpapers. Have at 'em!
For more handy Animal Crossing tools, click on over here!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Felix the Cat is a bag of tricks

Platform: NES    Genre: Platforming   Release: October 1992
If you're looking for a platforming game for NES, you shouldn't have any trouble finding one. If, however, your search is more specific, say, for a good platforming game for NES based on a cartoon character which isn't "Nintendo hard" to beat and isn't just a Mario clone, look no further! Felix the Cat is the game for you!

It was released in 1992, which is pretty late for an NES game. As such, it has nicer graphics and more variety in gameplay than some of the earlier games on the console. Also, it's by Hudson Soft, so that's always a good sign.

At a glance, it looks the same as any other platforming game, but there are a few things that set it apart. For one, you can't kill enemies by jumping on their heads - in fact, it hurts you to do so (except birds, which you can ride). Instead, you'll be pressing B to use your attack. This starts out as a boxing glove that pops out in front of you, but can be powered up to magical sparkles that attack in all directions, a plane that shoots, and a tank that lobs bouncing balls. Strangely enough, Felix's second form is actually the easiest to attack with in most cases, but remaining in this form means having less hit points.
I'm a tank!
These transformations and upgrades are the main way that this game distinguishes itself from the others. Rather than searching for specific items to power up, a power up item will drop for every ten Felix heads you collect. (Collecting power ups when fully upgraded results in a 1-Up.) These are essentially the same as coins in Mario and are strew about each level, but now they actually serve a purpose. Getting hit while powered up will revert you to your previous form. As you'd expect, getting hit in your base form results in a death. But there's another way to revert to lower forms: by running out of time. Each powered up state has a timer, which will power you down if you let it run out. This is almost never a problem, however, because it gives you plenty of time and because for every five Felix heads you collect, milk (or another upgrade) will drop, which can be used to refill the timer.

Felix is smiling because his plane just pooted.
The game isn't just limited to land based stages; there are also flying levels, underwater levels, boating levels, and even an outer space leve, each with its own unique transformations for Felix. These offer a nice break and keep the game from getting boring. If I had one complaint, it would be that the player's greater freedom of movement in the flying levels caused the level design to suffer. They kind of feel like a lot of empty space with enemies and cannons just laying around. It's not that big of a deal though, since you'll probably be having so much fun being an airplane that you won't even notice.
Pogo Sticks:
Easier to animate than legs since always.
Each of the nine worlds (except for World 8, which is only one level) also has a boss at the end. They aren't all that difficult, but it's nice that they're there. Mostly they just move around and shoot at you occasionally until one of you dies. In between some worlds, there are even cutscenes, which consist of the bad guy (who strikingly resembles Dr. Wily) calling Felix to taunt him about having kidnapped his girlfriend. I'm not really sure why the mad scientist wanted to kidnap a cat in the first place or why Felix is back in his house in between levels to answer the phone. In any case, cutscenes are a nice touch.

To match the snazzy graphics, the game's soundtrack is also above average, featuring many tracks that'll be stuck in your head long after you finish playing. Some of the music towards the end of the game actually set the foreboding mood so well that it kinda scared me as a kid. Another minor thing to note in regards to the music is that it gets quieter when you're about to finish a level. It's really an insignificant thing, but it's one of the only instances of dynamic music in an NES game that I can think of.
Imagine Felix's surprise when he found that the mad scientist had infused his girlfriend's DNA with Piglet's.
As for the game's difficulty, it's actually not that bad. Experienced players won't have a very hard time beating it as long as they stock up on a few extra lives during the earlier levels. Even as a kid, this was one of the few games I was able to beat, though it did take me several attempts. Although a game over sends you back to the beginning of the game, Felix the Cat is fairly generous with lives and continues, so you should be alright if you're careful.

The final word:
Felix the Cat stands apart from the crowd of other platforming games thanks to its transformation system and generally well polished gameplay and presentation. It's a bit on the easy side, but that doesn't mean it's boring. We can't all be Ninja Gaiden speedrunners; for the common man, there's Felix the Cat, and it deserves the same remake treatment as Ducktales, or a virtual console release at the very least.

This is part of a series on forgotten games from my childhood. Previous: Home Alone (NES) Next: Super Solvers: Midnight Rescue! and Gizmos & Gadgets!
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