Friday, February 27, 2009

Guiness Knows Video Games

So apparently Guiness World Records decided to put together a list of the most influential console games in history. In short, it's ridiculous. I'm not going to reproduce the whole list (it's a top 50 list), but let's just look at the top 10:

1. Super Mario Kart
2. Tetris
3. Grand Theft Auto
4. Super Mario World
5. Zelda Ocarina of Time
6. Halo
7. Resident Evil IV
8. Final Fantasy XII
9. Street Fighter II
10. GoldenEye

Now remember, these aren't supposed to be favorites, or best games, or anything of that sort - they're "most influential" games. Now, I would measure influential games by the kind of impact they had on the games that followed them, so one rule I apply from the get-go: No games from the last couple years. And yet there's FFXII staring me in the face, and a little further down (at #14) they have Call of Duty 4. Even the Orange Box (further down the list), which seems like it's guaranteed to have a long-lasting impact on gaming because of it's inclusion of Portal, is something I would hesitate to put on their, because there simply hasn't been enough time for it to have a "legacy," which is one of the criteria used to judge these (supposedly).

But that's not the big issue. The big issue is all of the things that aren't in the top 10 list here. I mean, where's Mario - you know, the game that invented the side-scrolling platformer, which for a while was the pre-eminent genre? Where's Dragon Quest, the first console RPG? If you're going to include a Final Fantasy game in the top 10, why isn't it VII, which not only made JRPGs mainstream in America, but got a movie made about it? Why are Super Metroid and Castlevania: SotN so far down (in the late 30's) when they're the origin of "Castleroid" games? DDR isn't even on the list, even though it's a predecessor to games like Guitar Hero (which did make the list)?

And that's granting already that they're discounting all PC games (in some cases, this also seems kind of disingenuous, since titles like Oblivion and Call of Duty are probably more significant for their PC versions than their console ports). That means things like SimCity and Civilization aren't even in the running.

I would probably feel better about this list if they at least had a consistent metric that they were basing it on, but from the Kotaku article, it sounds like every item on the list has vague justifications. Guiness should probably stick to things they can measure, like "largest game cartridge ever," "longest loading screen ever," and "most copies sold back to GameStop."


Monday, February 16, 2009

RocketOn Embed

Hello. This post is just a test to see if this embed works. Clicking on the image below should open avatars over the page (I know, crazy, huh?). Here goes:


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Waving Hands 2: Finite Resources

So, given how fan-ish I was in my previous post on Waving Hands (aka Spellcaster, aka Warlocks), it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've continued playing the game in the interim (though a little less frequently now that my boss has figured out what the strings of random letters on my monitor are), and I think it's time to return to what makes the strategy feel particularly deep.

In particular, it's occured to me that several of the elements I discussed before are enabled by a single feature - finite resources. In this case, your primary resource is your HP, which you "spend" for better position and the chance to complete major spells. The key here is that your HP starts off at a set number (15), and generally only decreases. I mean, there are healing spells, but they're less efficient than their analagous damage spells, and in any case your HP can't go above 16. The healing spells have their uses, but in general, the game is about gradually moving toward 0 HP.

Why does that matter? First of all, it keeps the game from dragging out - every turn that passes brings you closer to the conclusion because resources are always being spent faster than they're generated. More importantly, perhaps, it prevents either player from establishing an unbeatable advantage, like you can achieve in many real-time strategy games. In Age of Empires III, if I played the Dutch and survived to the Imperial Age, I got an economy going that was so absurdly efficient that it was virtually impossible to defeat me (because I could replace units as fast as they died without putting any significant dent in my resources). In warlocks, you can't build up your resources and then steamroll your opponent - you only have the resources you started with, and even if you have a clear HP advantage, you can always be defeated by a single Finger of Death or permanent enchantment, so you're never safe.

Now, in order for this to work, it doesn't require that there is actually no resource generation at all, just that resource generation is limited. In addition to healing, I would count monster summoning as "resource generation," in which case it might seem possible to build resources (by summoning endless hordes of monsters). The fact of the matter, though, is that getting out multiple summoned monsters is hard. Not only can your opponent disrupt or dispel you, but once you have a monster summoned, you have to pay attention to them, or they might be charmed by your opponent, and become their ogre or troll. Monsters are a good investment, but they have to be maintained, and can be expensive to cast in the first place, so the decision to bring out a monster is itself an important strategic decision. While summon ogre is a popular opening spell, you can win a match without ever summoning anything.

And that's what really matters here - that every decision is meaningful. In most RTS games, resource gathering is so central, that it single-handedly determines the outcomes of the game, and decisions like army makeup and where and when to deploy units are secondary. While I immensely enjoyed AoE3, over time the games start becoming identical - the game was about perfecting my rapid development strategy. Games of Waving Hands, on the other hand, are wildly different and unpredictable, and that's what keeps me fascinated with it.

Speaking of strategy games, I just got my hands on a copy of Valkyria Chronicles, so now I have something other than Valentine's Day dinner on my to-do list this weekend.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rebuild of Evangelion

So been over a month since my last post, and I'm not even talking about video games? How devious of me.

I remember hearing about the new Evangelion movies over a year ago and flipping out, only to hear that their North American release was indefinitely postponed. Sometime in the last year, that situation apparently changed*, because I just returned from a screening of the first movie, and the short version is that it was awesome.

First, to recap, Rebuild of Evangelion is a trilogy of movies** that retell the original story. That's right, it's not new, post-post-apocalyptic story, it's the same story, again. Now, you might ask, "didn't they already remake the series into a movie, in the form of Evangelion: Death"? Yes, yes they did. There's also the manga, which is different from the series in a couple significant ways, and the NEW manga, which retells the story without any mecha at all. Then Rebirth tried to be a remake of episode 25, but was itself remade again as the first half of End of Eva. So what's with all the remaking?

It's worth remembering that a lot of great art goes through creation and recreation. Some of the greatest haiku poets went through literally dozens of versions of some of their best poems. I'm not talking about drafts, I mean complete, official versions of the poem that they wrote onto paintings (and hung on some nobleman's wall). That's just working with 17 syllables, mind you, so it shouldn't be that surprising that a 13-hour long series has a lot of room for variation.

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that Evangelion has always been a deeply flawed work. The fact that creators and audiences keep coming back to it, and not to add on new stories, but just to rework and refine the existing story, just shows that there's something buried in it that's so compelling that it shines through the flaws and captivates people. In other words, it's got some pure, unadulterated human condition in there somewhere.

So the first movie, You Are Not Alone, is largely surprising just for how little they've actually changed. I mean, they've redrawn everything from scratch, as far as I'm aware, but sometimes you have to look really close to be sure they did. I'm talking frame-for-frame identical shots in there. A lot of them.

In fact, in the begining, it's an almost overwhelming number of them. I missed the opening credits, but what I saw of the first half-hour felt distinctly like someone had just taken the first episode and given it more aggressive stop-cut editing. Oh yeah, and added a pretty rainbow-lens-flare effect like every 5 minutes. I was never actually much of a fan of the first episode, anyway, so I guess it's not surprising that this part felt like going through the motions.

Fortunately, it gets better fast. I'm not going to go over all the differences, but it definitely starts feeling very different - purer, if you will. The major success of the movie, and clearly an important focus in this retelling, was to make Shinji's character more sympathetic. He's just a little more willful, a little more vocal, and we're given more reflection from the adult characters that takes him from seeming whiny in the show to seeming like a real "epitome of human adolescence" character.

They've also redone the music, which is generally very good, and of course added CG effects (mainly for computer displays and such). The strangest non-change is probably the fact that Shinji is still using a portable cassette player (that's right, not even a CD player, much less an ipod), which is downright anachronistic at this point. Maybe cassette players are just an important object in Hideaki Anno's mind, and I suppose it's true that updating it to an ipod would just doom it to be obsolete again in ten years, but I'll be amused if Asuka makes fun of him for not owning an mp3 player when she shows up. I mean, I guess that shouldn't strike me as a big deal compared to the fact that in the original show, an apocalyptic event occurs in 2000...

And while the CG effects are generally pretty irrelevent to my assessment of the movie (and downright distracting in at least one instance), there's one thing that is made immensely more awesome by the newfanfly CG, and that's Ramiel, the 5th (or in the movie, counted as the 6th) angel. Its basic appearance, as a giant floating 8-sided-die, is the same, but in the movie, every time it attacks, it does so by rearranging itself into some alternate crystaline form that's theoretically better suited to the particular energy beam it's firing at the time. Ramiel was always one of my favorite angels, and now it is officially the coolest godzilla-sized creature to ever attack a Japanese city.

Seriously, I do not recommend pissing that thing off.

-Silent Ellipsis

*Edit: I have since received evidence that it has technically still not been released in the US...
**Edit: Only half correct - there are going to be four movies, apparently, and the first 3 retell the story from the series (the last one is totally new material :O)