In Which I Find More PS1 Games to Play, Somehow

The gritty, younger reboot of my Playstation retrospective series, 32 Bits, commences in a few months. Whatever form it may take, it will contain one new thing: demos.

I did take a look at some demos before, but I decided to look at demo discs more thoroughly this time around, as a peculiarity of 32 bit-era gaming culture. But one thing always eluded me, until now.

The US’ Official Playstation Magazine, with its monthly demo disc, began publication in 1997. So did Sony’s quarterly demo/video magazine, Playstation Underground. But the UK had a demo magazine since the system’s launch in 1995 – their Official Playstation Magazine debuted in November 1995, and ran absurdly late, concluding in March 2004 after 108 demo discs. While the American Playstation magazine mixed PSX and PS2 coverage, and alternated PSX and PS2 demo discs for a time before discontinuing the former in very early 2002, the British magazine just launched a PS2 edition and kept both in publication for…four years.

Obviously, the stray European exclusive or game that just wasn’t popular in North America can be found on OPM UK’s discs. And there’s a number of experimental, or obscure Japanese games that made it to Europe, but not America, such as Vib-Ribbon. But there’s something weirder: from 1997 on, many OPM UK discs included full games made on Sony’s Net Yaroze homebrew system. These hobbyist-developed games never really made it to American shores.

I fired up a disc – the thirty-eighth, more or less because its Net Yaroze game was one of the few I heard of. Haunted Maze is a weird riff on Pac-Man where you evade mummies to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”:

Other demos include B-Movie – which turned out to be the European name for Invasion from Beyond. Soccer games are far more prominent on the UK discs, and this disc contained one genuine exclusive: Fluid, a bizarre game where you swim around as a dolphin and unlock samples to use in the game’s real focus, a music sequencer. You then play through your own songs – one of a wave of surreal European music games that never reached American shores. Another disc contains an expansion pack for a racing game, Circuit Breakers.

But the star of the OPM UK discs are the Net Yaroze games it gave a platform to, and I’m glad I’ll be able to dive into them and every other oddity strewn about their collection.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon

My 32 bit era retrospective series, the creatively named 32 Bits, is on hiatus. In truth, I’ve been trying to pick it up again: as a video series, or by rewriting them (I’d need to at least edit every entry, as many of the images were hosted on Photobucket). Or just carrying on where I left off. But to try to renew my enthusiasm for the 32 bit era, I’m going to step back and post some impressions on games I’m revisiting more or less at random. I’m sticking to games I was already familiar with before 32 Bits: for instance, I might play Final Fantasy VII or IX, games I know well, but not VIII, which I gave up on early, or Tactics, which I never played. I don’t want to taint my opinion of a game I’d play later, so I’ll stick to the pre-tainted. Let’s begin with the only original Spyro game I never beat.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is a Spyro game that doesn’t want to be a Spyro game. Breaking up the familiar platforming of the past games is a slate of new, largely frustrating playable characters.

Sheila the Kangaroo is the most successful, likely because her gimmick is more like the lack of a gimmick: Sheila is just a typical platformer hero, double jumping instead of gliding, kicking instead of charging or flaming. Her stages are more methodical and traditional; her last challenge is even a sidescroller. And it’s probably no coincidence, given the throwback nature of her gameplay, that Sheila has more stages than anyone.

Sgt. Byrd doesn’t have many stages of his own, and we should all be grateful. Imagining the creative process behind introducing a character whose central mechanic is “flying, but bad” is more interesting than any of Byrd’s plodding, clunky stages. There are already areas where the protagonist can fly, but sadly they don’t let you hover in place and get shot while trying to bomb a gopher. Byrd’s one interesting stage is “Enchanted Towers”, the only level where two characters can play the same area. Some parts are only available to Spyro, and others only to Byrd. If only the game expanded on this mechanic.

Bentley’s a sluggish but powerful yeti who bashes enemies with a club. There’s not much to say about his gameplay, and the developers don’t seem to have thought about him much either: he only gets one typical platforming stage after his homeworld, his others revolving around minigames like a deeply frustrating boxing match (which has some weird mechanics involving multiplayer – but this an impressions piece more than anything, and so the history lesson must wait until my real review in, probably, 2037).

The supremely toyetic Agent 9 brings, at long last, clunky first person shooting to the Spyro series. Hallelujah. Agent 9’s primarily used for a series of frustrating first-person and top-down gauntlets, and a late-game railshooter. None of it works, and the best you can say for Agent 9 is that he’s thankfully mostly confined to the final world. Agent 9’s mix of platforming and shooting at least presages Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank – making him more of a tedious platforming caterpillar, who emerged from a chrysalis as something greater, or at least more playable.

Year of the Dragon’s challenges have an unfortunate tendency to repeat themselves; do this, then do the same thing but much harder. The second and third Spyros have a love of escort missions matched only by their endearing failure to convincingly depict escort missions: both features challenges where the escortee weaves a winding path through a clearly wide open area, heading straight into every enemy and obstacle in sight for no apparent reason.

Spyro: Year of the Dragon is the last hurrah of Spyro – or at least, the good Spyro games – and of its kitchen-sink platformer ethos. En vogue in the PS1/N64 era, the platformer that prized collecting whatsits by besting constantly shifting, widely varied challenges died off shortly into the PS2’s life cycle. The game’s challenges are defined by casual, radical shifts in genre and mechanics that you must adapt to in order to find every egg. The minigames in Year of the Dragon frequently dive into genres you rarely saw on the PS1: beyond Agent 9’s early-90s throwback first person shooting, which calls out Doom by name, you’ll engage in top-down SHMUP gameplay with Sparx, sidescrolling platform and a tank battle that harkens all the way back to Atari’s Combat.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for the variety of this type of game, up until you find yourself unable to progress because you can’t figure out some minigame, to master skills that you’ll never see again. I’m playing Final Fantasy VII at the moment and that game has a similar focus on making you do almost everything – not in a cutscene, not in a button prompt, but by throwing, say, a CPR mechanic at you that you’ll never see again. A game like this needs to move, and to get momentum this type of design needs to be paired with good execution of dozens of mechanics, dozens of challenges – and here, it isn’t.

The storybook aesthetic of the Spyro games, its gentle pastels and flat colors, has aged magnificently where many PS1 games haven’t, as has the percussive score by Stewart Copeland. When Year of the Dragon works, it works, but it’s the weakest of the PS1 installments due to its scattershot focus on underheated challenges and a cast of newcomers that are, at best, a dull distraction from why you’re here. And it’s glitchy as hell too, not just in the routine, fun, do-this-and-you-can-swim-through-air way but in gamebreaking ways. A gem can fall into a swamp and become irretrievable; one of the flight stages must be beaten in full on your first visit, or you can never recover every egg.

Year of the Dragon hails from 2000, the Playstation’s last relevant year. You can tell this by the obligatory bullet time gag. Matrix parodies infected seemingly all media until about 2002; it makes you long for the days-long meme cycles of today. At the least, seeing a Matrix joke made me think, oh, this game is old, much like we all are, or will be, until we crumble into dust. But I can’t place a grim reminder of mankind’s mortality on this game’s shoulders. When it hits, it hits: Spyro’s aesthetic, and the particular movement of its quadrupedal protagonist, still looms large in the crowded genus of Mascotus Animalwithattitudus. And at least it’s good to finally say I’ve found every gem, every egg, beat the vile bourgeoisie bear Moneybags and redistributed his wealth. That I’ve seen the super final final stage, the easygoing playgrounds that are the hallmark of completing a Spyro game. And that I’ve beaten the game…117%?

Select Video Game Creepypastas that are (Mostly) Realistic and Not Poorly Written Garbage

Creepypastas are bad. Video game creepypastas are worse.

Video games inspire a kind of relationship, a kind of obsession other mediums usually don’t (though anyone who’s seen cult theories about The Shining may disagree). A very specific obsession brought about by being able to explore a world, a desire to poke at its seams and uncover what’s hidden in a way more literal than, say, academic theorizing. You can theorize about hidden meaning, or you can obsessively poke around a game in order to find anything hidden.

Games that hide strange, even unsettling content exist. For all the urban legends about Grand Theft Auto, about hidden creatures and phantoms, the game does hide, in its vast worlds, eerie ghosts and UFOs. An innocuous game like California Speed (1999, N64 port) can hold a disturbing secret message. And ancient games can hold secrets no one’s yet uncovered.

Synnergist is a cyberpunk adventure game from Vicarious Visions. Released in 1996 for PC, it’s notable for the fact that, years later, it contains an entire secret plot no one has ever found. Scattered new scenes have been uncovered, and we know where the true endgame is, but twenty years later, we’re no closer to unlocking it.

One of my favorite examples, and my personal obsession, are the Action Half-Life maps crafted by a designer named Hondo. This now-forgotten Half-Life mod’s maps conceal secrets: not just easter eggs, but entire secret maps, complex, obtuse mazes, full of abstract puzzles and nightmarish rooms. Unlocking the mystery is challenging, surprising and fascinating.

A ordinary deathmatch stage in Action Half-Life…

…and the surreal maze underneath it.

What’s not are video game creepypastas. Video game creepypastas are, on the whole, a garbage fire. They play with the paranormal, drenching familiar old games in photorealistic blood and gore. An unmarked cartridge from a garage sale, and the obligatory “and he thought he saw it in real life” twist at the end. Games haunt and scare, and we always ask how it could ruin someone’s life so thoroughly when they could always just throw it in a box and forget it.

These are that rare few: video game creepypastas that aren’t garbage. They eschew the paranormal (or at least confine it to small, easy-to-ignore passages) and focus on strange mysteries, forgotten history and the obscure and surreal. And they’re presented in no particular order. Continue reading

The Writing Program That Swore at Children

The cover, via Superkids.

1998’s The Secret Writers Society is a strange footnote in gaming history. Released by Panasonic Interactive Media, it would just be another forgotten educational program in the era of education CDs and multimedia…were it not for one unique “glitch”.

Aimed at second and third graders, The Secret Writers Society taught basic writing composition to children. It included a text-to-voice program that would read passages back to the students who wrote them – a cool feature to be sure, except if the child wrote a long passage, and double-clicks the “read” button in the hopes of skipping the computer’s slow reading.

Should a student double-click, the game’s mechanical voice would instead rattle of a string of swear words, a burst of computerized obscenity that, according to one parent, went “beyond George Carlin’s seven banned words”, an eerie, unexpected barrage of profanity that gives the impression the computers have gone rampant, and their revolution mainly consists of yelling “ASSHOLE” at seven-year olds.

Discovered by SuperKids, a site reviewing kid’s software, Panasonic quickly acted, removing the feature and offering replacement CDs to any customer who sent theirs in.

An example of a passage that triggers the “glitch”, via Superkids.

Panasonic offered an explanation: the glitch was the result of the game’s voice accidentally reading a list of banned words: a blocklist, meant to prohibit users from making the game’s computerized voice swear, instead was read out loud due to a glitch. Fair enough, right?

Wrong.

That explanation was a lie. And here is when the tale of The Secret Writers Society becomes so, so much stupider. For this was no glitch: it was a feature, inserted by a rogue programmer. But before we get to him, a history lesson.

RTMark is an anti-consumerist action group responsible for some great works of sabotage. Their debut was the Barbie Liberation Organization, an initiative to switch the voice boxes in GI Joes and Barbies and then slip them back on shelves, giving children gender-non-conforming toys, GI Joes that excitedly baked cookies and Barbies that declared never-ending vengeance upon Cobra.

Their first video game hack was 1996’s SimCopter. A programmer netted a $5,000 reward for inserting in “male bimbos” who crowded landing helicopters and kissed each other. He did it as a way of coping with the developer’s working conditions, and with the implicit heterosexuality of the game industry (the game already had many sexualized female “bimbos” in it – so why not sexualized men, too?).

The programmer who inserted the swearing robot voice into The Secret Writers Society also had high-minded ambitions behind their inclusion:

“No program can replace the family. But people have this awe of technology. They think it can do better than they can. I wanted to wake parents up to reality – here’s what happens if you hand your responsibility to some machine.”

If you let your children use computer programs, then I will swear at them! Because you shouldn’t trust computers with your kids because of, uh, what I did. Oh, you want to give your kids a writing program? So they can learn how to write? In a way that’s not at all different from giving them a typewriter or even a notebook? Well, let me swear at your children. Because I’m the responsible one here. I AM A SERIOUS ACTIVIST.

“Choosing to have a child constitutes a commitment to give that child the very best that you can,” said the programmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Letting a third-rate piece of software take over for you is wrong because it violates that contract, which is more important than any legal one.”

Well, of course. Parents didn’t use educational programs as a supplement to help kids. They made them into replacement parents. Why even be a parent when your kid can be parented by a writing program for eight year olds? Really makes ya think. I also think textbooks are the devil. You’re the parent, not some BOOK. And schools? A bunch of people who AREN’T the kid’s parent’s teaching them things, in a building that’s not home? YOU MADE A CONTRACT, YOU MADE A-

“It’s time to stop turning children into products of products, and to start getting them in touch with values that really count.”

Values that really count, like abusing your job to create a program that yells obscenities at seven-year olds. GOOD OLD FASHIONED VALUES

RTMark admitted to reservations about rewarding the children-swearing-computer-hacker, but ultimately paid him $1,000. When asked, RTMark spokesman Ray Thomas said:

“In essence, these allegedly educational programs are already barraging children with obscenities; this just puts it on the table.”

Oh yeah man, that’s so deep. Writing programs teaching people about writing, and letting them write whatever they want and have it read back to them, completely harmlessly…those are the REAL swear words, directed at children.

Though Panasonic would always maintain that the swearing was just a glitch, and Panasonic Interactive Media would close the following year, the Secret Writers Society will always be known as “that kid’s game that swore at children because, uh, VALUES I guess”.

I would very much like to show you the swearing protest game, but that’s not actually possible. Finding an obscure educational game would be hard. Finding an original copy of one that was recalled and replaced en masse is practically impossible. If any copies of the Secret Writers Society are out there, none of them have ever turned up, though if we’re lucky, perhaps its rogue programmer is sneaking an anti-smart phone screed into an educational app as we speak.

Wacky Slave Adventures

SlaveTetrisPlaying History 2: The Slave Trade is a game that seeks to teach children about the slave trade. I have not played it, and thus can’t comment on the game’s quality, though a viewing of the game revealed, beyond the appearance of a “Slave Tetris” minigame, the presence of an anthropomorphic mouse who gives you gadgets, such as goggles that can see through time. If I were to play it now, which I would like to do, it wouldn’t be the same game that inspired outrage, since “slave Tetris” was removed. I can only comment on how it looks and the developer’s reaction to criticism, and will not comment on the game’s quality or how it plays. This isn’t a Guardian article about Terry Pratchett, after all.

Oddly, there was little outcry in the developer’s native Denmark. They ascribed this to some cultural differences in the United States. Perhaps it’s that Americans are oversensitive – or that Denmark eliminated slavery over 50 years before the US, without a civil war; that Denmark is 88% Danish while the United States is only 63% non-Hispanic white; or that slavery and the Civil War is still contentious and some states continued to fly the Confederate flag until this year; or that the textbooks recently approved by the state of Texas, and used nationwide for various financial reasons, whitewash slavery; that many still try to pretend that the Civil War was over “State’s Rights” (their right to do…what, exactly?); or it’s just that those damn Americans are just so sensitive about this for some weird reason.

The issue isn’t that they tried to teach about slavery. The issue is, from someone who hasn’t played it, is that it looks like the Slavers of Monkey Island. The issue is that there’s a mouse in a hat and a wacky sea dragon in the background of that abstract slavery mini-game. There’s a profound mismatch between how the game looks and what it’s about.

If you want to show us the inhumane conditions of slave ships, show us the inhumane conditions of slave ships. Not in an abstract minigame, next to a smiling Sea Serpent – take us inside the ships. Show us what they’re about. Place us in the perspective of one of the slaves being crammed in there and not the person cramming them in. Show us the horrors.

If we have to play as the slave ship’s crew, then don’t have the bent bodies and horrors of the process be Tetris pieces. Show us the slaves as people, and make us cram them in there as people. Not as an L-block that’s next to a grinning Nessie. Make us feel complicit, make us feel guilty about what we’ve done.

There possibly was a drive to “sanitize” it for kids. If you can’t commit to showing the horrors of slavery, and want to make it kid-friendly, then you should probably consider if this an appropriate topic, because you gain nothing by giving kids a false, sanitized version of slavery.

My viewing of the game made me think that it’s also weirdly patronizing. After Slave Tetris, the mouse returns to say that the conditions on ships were inhumane and says it was “certainly not nice”. Well, it was more than “not nice”, it was horrific. Kids deserve more than to be talked down to by a cartoon animal who pops up to remind them that slavery was very naughty.

The developer explained their rationale and it’s…something.

Below I try to summarize the different points

1). You cannot make a game about sensitive subjects. Slave trade is too serious a topic, and should not be done in a ‘fun medium’ like games. This is similar to people saying you cannot make visual novels of difficult subjects or movies like Schindler’s List because movies are entertainment medium.

Right. But Schindler’s List wasn’t a zany animated epic that taught about the Holocaust via an abstract musical number about Jewish people taking showers. It was a serious movie that showed us the horrors of the Holocaust, unfiltered. It didn’t try to sanitize it or place distance between us and the subject matter.

3). Slave tetris is a mockery and insensitive. I definitely agree it is insensitive and gruesome. It has to be like this to show what was done to load slave ships. People treated human beings as pieces that just had to fitting into the cargo.

But it ISN’T gruesome. It’s sugar-coated. The twisted bodies of slaves are abstract game pieces. There’s a damn cartoon mouse next to the Slave Tetris. A cartoon mouse!

The developer seems incapable of understanding why anyone objected to Slave Tetris or their game. Instead of considering if their game’s tone was wrong, or if this was a bad way to educate about slavery, they just think people are angry because they dared to make a game about this topic. Sure, some people may think slavery is an improper subject for a game, but the criticism I saw was largely saying “I think this was a bad way to teach about this” and not “you should NEVER have tried to do this”.

6). I have not included the random – you are a racist, disgusting, crazy comments, if you can’t see how crazy you are I can’t explain you etc. Lots of people just following like sheep because something on the surface looks wrong.

These dumb fucks, judging my game off of things in it!

People are so eager to just jump on a wagon. I think the situation we have where people behave this way is far more worrying than any game that could ever be made. We are going towards a closed society, where sensitive and controversial subjects are not welcome in public because it causes an outcry focusing on motives and persons rather than the subject which stops any open debate.

This Slave Tetris defense/Donald Trump campaign speech says we’re entering a closed society, where sensitive and controversial subjects just can’t be discussed at all. And that’s why a movie about slavery, 12 Years a Slave, earned $187 million and 3 Oscars, including Best Picture, in 2013 – because you just can’t discuss these subjects nowadays without being shut down by the all-powerful Social Justice Warriors. It isn’t possible that I handled this subject badly, it’s just that I live in a society where you can’t discuss these topics at all. Or you’ll be awarded with money and prizes for discussing it. It’s almost like how you go about making your point matters or something.

Political correctness has gone mad, you know, because people said critical things about my video game and I chose voluntarily to change it. People are too busy discussing “why you made a game” and “is this game good” not worshiping my genius for making this game, which they just didn’t “get”, obviously. So it goes.

Obligatory E3 Post

E3! It had several Good Things and no Embarrassing Things. No, I didn’t see the EA or Ubisoft conferences, why are you asking?

Bethesda

Bethesda opened with Doom. This incarnation of Doom is maybe too gory, with bloody executions that just look like they slow it down unnecessarily. Are shotguns not enough for this crazy modern world??? And why are the fiery depths of Hell so…brown? Why does the trailer end with a monster killing the hero?

Bethesda also showed off TF2-like Shooter #73 and a short film called Dishonored 2 before getting to Fallout 4. Fallout 4’s crafting looks great and so does THAT DOG. OH MY GOSH LOOK AT THAT DOG. WHO’S A GOOD DOG? WHO’S A GOOD DOG? TODD HOWARD’S A GOOD DOG. I MEAN DEV. OH MY GOSH DOGGGGG.

Bethesda: the only developer who can announce a free-to-play mobile game and receive earnest hype in return!

I think they may have announced a card game or MOBA.

Microsoft

Microsoft opened with a short film call Recore. It was about a robot dog and it ended sadly. I assume every dog movie ends sadly until I learn otherwise. Then there was an Halo? I think? Halo features no dogs.

There were two tactical military shooters and TF2-like Shooter #84 and a sequel to the gritty new Tomb Raider reboot I forgot existed. Gears of Four is a military shooter starring a protagonist who touches an alien pod for…some…reason? Every demo ends by showing the main character in mortal peril. It’s a cliffhanger, of a kind, except not really since the resolution will be “you kill/escape it like you do every monster/challenge in the game”.

Rare returned with a collection of their old games and a game of their own that involves very little dancing. Fable Legends is a MOBA but I don’t think they announced any card games. There was a car.

The best part was their montage of indie games. Cuphead looks amazing! Ashen looks WHERE ARE THEIR FACES AHHHHHH. And of all games that could get a spiritual successor, I didn’t consider Army Men as a likely candidate. Yet there it was: an Army Men game slid into the montage.

(If I had kept doing 32 Bits, I would be playing at least two Army Men games in 1999 alone. They became an almost monthly thing.)

They did a demo of the impressive Hololens technology for Minecraft. Then they showed us how it looks to anyone not wearing a hololens: a guy dorkily gesturing at a table. Dorkishness has always been VR’s biggest flaw.

Nintendo

Oh fuck Nintendo still has to do theirs, right? Well the World Championship was fun until Cosmo, the Wizard-that-was-promised, struggled on the final stage. New games included Super Kaizo Mario and Blast Ball, a form of gun soccer. The host joked that this is what it takes to make soccer popular in America. Well, I see plenty of soccer fans here in my corner of the United States. They like Chelsea, Manchester United, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea or Chelsea. I saw a family of Newcastle fans once and I felt so bad for them. Anyway Nintendo was good and also gun soccer?

Sony

Holy fuck.

Horizon: Zero Dawn pits cavemen against robot dinosaurs in a post-apocalyptic future. It feels like a concept you’d see in a twelve-year old’s scribblings, and that’s wonderful. Horizon is so fucking metal.

There was more information on No Man’s Sky. This game lets you fight in space and explore planets in a huge galaxy. It is also very metal. The pan back through thousands and thousands of unvisited planets is magical.

I don’t know what Dreams is. It is not metal at all, but it’s pretty cute. Firewatch looks interesting, but its metal-ness is not quite certain yet.

I didn’t see most of this one. But I heard of it. Of The Last Guardian‘s triumphant return. Holy shit it’s real. It exists. Nothing can top that. Nothing. Nothing can top the reveal of that wonderful hyenagiraffebirddog.

Well what else is there besidFINALFANTASYVIIREMAKE!!!

I’ve seen grumbling about this because the best choice you can make is choosing to shame people for being excited. What if the game turns out to be bad? I saw someone on Twitter once compare it to not smiling in your wedding pictures because you’d look like a fool if you get divorced later.

Apparently we’ve given in to our past, or regressed somehow, by remaking Final Fantasy VII. This is garbage. Retro remakes are hardly a new trend. When Final Fantasy VII was new, remakes of 80s games like Frogger, Asteroids and Pong sat beside it on the shelf. You don’t remember them, though. Just like how everyone who lived in the 70s remembers seeing The Godfather in theaters, not Airport ’77. The present’s everything is being judged in comparison to the past’s highlight reel. Anyway, Final Fantasy VII is still very popular and Square can make all the money by remaking it.

Saying that HD re-releases of old games, as I’ve seen said before, is somehow destroying the industry is outrageously stupid. It’s like telling Universal to stop restoring Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil because those dollars would be better spent on a new movie. To spin any attempt to revive old games as a nostalgia ploy, to attack old games as unworthy of our attention, is to devalue gaming’s history.

I do worry about them changing the tone. Final Fantasy VII is a broad melodrama with strong elements of camp. It features bizarre enemies, a boss fight interrupted by the boss being hit by a truck, and mandatory cross-dressing. Its party members include a robot cat on a robot Moogle and a giant red wolf thing. The trailer seems pretty grim, and more in line with the tone of the game’s terrible sequels.

The Shenmue III thing is garbage, however. All these Kickstarter game revivals are garbage. They lead fans to believe they’re funding the game, where they’re funding maybe 1-10% of a game funded by a traditional publisher. But for a company to announce a Kickstarter at an industry conference? For a company to demand $2 million to see if there’s “interest” in the game? The original Shenmue, for the Dreamcast, was the most expensive game of its time, at $47 million ($67 million today). Shenmue III will take so much more money than that. $2 million is nothing. I’ve seen people ask why Sony, or Sega, isn’t funding it themselves. They are, and your 2 million Kickstarter funbucks won’t fund much of anything.

The only part of the stream I saw? The Uncharted demo…so I missed the announcements of Shenmue, Final Fantasy, and The Last Guardian, and instead saw a glitched, unmoving Nathan Drake. At least the car chase seemed fun.

Ubisoft

The Last Guardian, Shenmue, Final Fantasy VII remake, Fallout 4. We’re just a Beyond Good & Evil 2 and Half-Life 3 away from knowing the status of every high-profile, mysterious, long-unreleased game (a group of games in development hell is called a Nukem, by the way) I can think of.

I have no idea what they announced. I only watched the end, where they announced Gritty Open-World Shooter #183. I guessed that it was Ghost Recon, but who can even know with these games?

I wish open worlds would stop being the norm. It’s too easy for them to become tedious and repetitive, and an open world isn’t necessarily a more memorable world. We need more smaller, detailed worlds.

In An Alternate Timeline

Sega’s press conference was amazing. The Dreamcast 3 has so many great exclusives. Man, these Sonic games. They’ve just been so good for the last decade. That one in 2006, wow. Such great physics and hardly any glitches. And that new Nights Into Dreams! And a new Panzer Dragoon! A Skies of Arcadia remake! Shenmue…5! Sega has such a bright future in consoles.

Mass Effect

The trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda shows Mass Effect 1-style planetary exploration. I’ve always been sad that the series abandoned this exploration; Mass Effect 2 had a handful of sidequests, but Mass Effect 3 removed all real exploration, with the sidequests not involving a former party member or recycled multiplayer map reduced to simple fetch quests. Why this trailer is set to Johnny Cash, I don’t know, and I hope that armored character isn’t Shepard, who died melding synthetic and organic life, dreaming of her beloved Garrus. Oh, Garrus

HYPE RANKINGS

  1. Fallout 4
  2. Cuphead
  3. No Man’s Sky
  4. Horizon: Zero Dawn
  5. The Last Guardian
  6. Super Mario Maker

BEST SHORT FILMS

  1. Recore
  2. Dishonored 2
  3. Final Fantasy VII
  4. Mass Effect: Andromeda

32 Bits

I fell behind and eventually just stopped updating this series. I finished the last game, even, and never wrote about it.

Well I will be bringing it back. I started to use video in the second season of 32 Bits to show off the game, and that’s the direction I’ll continue with: I’m going to do it as a Youtube series…starting, ideally, in September.

Written reviews will probably continue. I’ll have to restart from the beginning, so maybe I’ll post re-written reviews here. This time around I’ll be including some games I couldn’t, or didn’t, play the first time around. And when I catch up with where I was and go forward, I’ll likely keep doing both, just so I can expand on what I say in the video.

Don’t know what it is? Curious why so many posts have gone missing? It’s a mystery…

Xbox 3 is Xbox 1

Today Microsoft announced the Xbox One, their third console. If I’m going to be honest I missed the first hour or so of the announcement but based on my Twitter feed and my knowledge of how tech companies announce things I can reasonably be sure what was said.

“This immersive experience will feature more immersive emotion thanks to the immersive technology of a few thousand extra polygons that enable deeper emotions.”

The word emotion is nearly as common as “experience”, “immersion” and “by gamers, for gamers” at these kinds of events. Which emotion is always unstated, but I presume they mean it might make you cry. When I think of “emotional” moments in games I think of Episode 5 of The Walking Dead, say, or the prayers for Amaterasu at the end of Okami – games that would never, ever be shown at an event like this thanks to being “creative” and “good”.

Those asking, “You know, I like watching TV on this TV attached to my Xbox, but how can I add useless, distracting information to the side of the screen?” – well, feel lucky, for Microsoft has answered your prayers. You can now watch TV, not on your TV, but on a Xbox whose channels you can control with your voice.

Indeed, Microsoft is going to produce their own TV series. Is it Halo? Of course. Every Microsoft event must mention Halo. Recall when Microsoft announced a “new trilogy” – and it was a trilogy of new Halo games? Steven Spielberg will be producing a series based on the immersive storytelling of Halo.

The Halo television series was compared to Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones for its ability to create a world. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are also famous for their complex, emotionally conflicted characters. Halo’s lead is a non-entity, a faceless blank slate for the gamer to project themselves on – hardly a compelling hero, unless they switch the focus to others.

Anyway, on to the games that are games and not TV shows based on games.

Electronic Arts was introduced with a typically hyperbolic intro about how they will bring intelligent, dynamic, original games rich with emotion to the Xbox One.

The game they were talking about?

Madden.

At the Playstation 4 press conference, they introduced the “original experiences” of the PS4 with footage of the latest Killzone. This reveal tops that moment in absurdity because at least then it was knowingly bullshit (additionally, Sony showed actual original experiences with Jonathan Blow’s game and that one platformer). Here, EA fully commits to the idea that Madden, FIFA, UFC and NBA Live are the height of storytelling. You will now hear the roar of the crowd, and that will finally make Madden realistic, unlike those shitty Maddens of the past.

That’s a strange theme to these conferences: games from the last generation are worthless compared to the technological advances of the next generation. Call of Duty: Ghosts models the dirt under the fingernails of your character, a detail that apparently advances the game’s emotion and detail beyond what Modern Warfare 3 was capable of. Developers discuss tiny technical advances that supposedly create deeper emotion than was possible before – and only reveal how little they understand emotions or what creates them. Animated films are not “realistic” and yet they can create deeper emotion than many live action films.

Electronic Arts claimed their new football partnership will transform not just the Xbox, but the sport itself. You can now discuss the game with friends and play Fantasy Football on your Xbox – so the big innovation here is that the Xbox One lets you do what one can already do on the internet, but now on one screen instead of two. The Microsoft partnership with coaches and players was mentioned off-hand, and I possibly imagined it.

Forza 5  was introduced with a spiel about memorable experiences in gaming: bringing an Xbox to a friend’s house to play Halo, unlocking your first achievement and the first time you painted a Forza car & traded it. Here I might have to admit a generational gap – as a gamer who started gaming in the primitive days of the late 90s, I never experienced any particular joy over my first achievement, and am generally ambivalent towards their existence. Yet somehow, despite my lack of knowledge, I don’t think the first time you traded a car in Forza was a formative experience for many gamers. The cars look nice though.

The one original game shown was…it’s hard to describe. Quantum Break is inspired by scripted television, and it may very well be a television show, since most of the trailer was live-action. Even a pre-rendered trailer usually gives some hints about how a game is played, yet I’m just at a loss here. Are FMV games coming back? Are we due for an immersive new take on Night Trap?

We closed out with Activision’s latest Call of Duty game, Ghosts.

Call of Duty’s developers, Infinity Ward, have tried to innovate by not following up Modern Warfare 3 with Modern Warfare 4 but instead a different identical game where you shoot a lot of people. Call of Duty: Ghosts was first teased in a live action trailer featuring different masked warriors throughout time, an impressive trailer that nonetheless just makes you want to play as one of the more interesting historical soldiers and not the dull modern people with guns. Give me a game about samurai or tribal hunters with spears and I’d jump onboard. Another Call of Duty? Not so much.

Call of Duty: Ghosts is the latest first person shooter to bring in a big Hollywood screenwriter to gussy up the cutscenes between gunfights. This time the writer is Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Traffic and Syriana. His story promises deeper immersion, emotional immersion, emotional technology, immersive immersion…

Call of Duty: Ghosts features leaning, sliding, and a dog teammate as the extent of its new, innovative mechanics. And the developers trash the graphics of their predecessor – while Modern Warfare 3’s arms were “beautiful at the time” (a sentence never before uttered by humanity), the new game’s arms show dirt under your nails. Dirt! Under your nails! One can also customize your character’s appearance, though sadly you can only choose helmets and not hats. Why, Infinity Ward?

Call of Duty: Ghosts pushes the idea of emotional connection with the game’s characters via a melancholic trailer. Once again, a game that will ultimately turn out to be just another first person shooter is sold on a “emotional” trailer.

Remember Gears of War, whose ads were set to Gary Jules’ “Mad World”? Or more famously, Dead Island’s trailer, a short film set to sad music that inexplicably was universally adored as an example of the newfound storytelling prowess of games, even though it showed nothing of the game (which was nothing special)? Now Call of Duty: Ghosts joins the tradition with a sad trailer of downbeat narration, promising a character-based drama in a apocalyptic world when we all know it’s just going to be a parade of new locales to shoot foreigners in.

Ultimately none of this matters because the console war narrative is unchanging, even in what’s probably close to the last days of gaming consoles. There will be posturing, rabid speculation, fanboy wars over what console they’ve never touched is the best. Already there’s gloating over the increase in Sony’s stock price after the Microsoft press conference (8%) and childish glee in the impending ‘death’ of Nintendo’s Wii U. Maybe it was a good idea to miss the first hour, to skip the ages of social features no one will use and technical specifications that sound impressive but mean nothing. The Xbox One press conference is devoid of substance and yet will be a focus of obsession.

On the plus side, the excellent Xbox 360 controller has hardly been changed beyond fixing the d-pad. So there’s that.

A word on the demise of LucasArts

Today it was announced that Disney, new owners of Lucas Film, would lay off LucasArts’ staff and turn the studio into a licensing machine. This brought an end to a developer that had lasted decades…but to mourn LucasArts is to mourn a studio that truly ended decades ago. Continue reading

Gex 3

Gex 3

Christmas, 1999. My gifts were just what I wanted.

One was a game I had looked forward to for months. I braved my family’s dinner, and chat, and the interminable parades they watched, hoping I could get the TV for myself and play my new gift. Finally, it was my chance. I sat, cross-legged, by the Christmas tree and gripped the controller as the Playstation started up. I basked in the television’s glow as the first level loaded up. Why, it was even Christmas themed! Could this game be a more fitting gift? I was overjoyed to be playing…Gex 3!?

Looking back, I have no idea why I desired a game so…mediocre. 1999’s Gex 3 was the last installment in a moderately popular and rarely loved series. The first Gex was a simple 2D platformer that debuted in 1994 on the 3DO console; Gex became the 3DO’s mascot. The sequel came four years later, long after the 3DO’s unmourned demise. That game took the titular gecko into three dimensions for the first time; it also recycled the same levels over and over and looked extraordinarily cheap, so those were possibly three dimensions too many.

Gex_3_-_Deep_Cover_Gecko
These were games of limited charms. There were many platformers in the late 90s, and far too many were identical: wrestle with an awkward camera as you jump around, collecting hundreds of useless items. The best platformers were clever: Banjo-Kazooie, Rayman, Spyro the Dragon, Jumping Flash, and a select few others all had creative level design that made all the collecting worthwhile. No such luck in the Gex series, where you grab remotes to unlock further levels; gather 100 flies to find an additional remote (a mission stolen from Super Mario 64’s ‘collect 100 coins’ quests); and find coins and paws, whose functions are more obscure. Gex 3 asks nothing more of you than to walk over objects so you can unlock new levels in which you can walk over yet more objects.

Gex 3 still looks relatively nice today, especially compared to its simplistic predecessors, but that wasn’t why I – or anyone else – wanted it. Gex’s true selling point was its humor.

Gex’s humor is firmly based in lazy pop culture references. Gex is voiced by Dana Gould in the United States, and Cat from Red Dwarf in the UK. The jokes are just as bad on either side of the pond. Each level has a television theme – gangsters, superheroes, anime, and so on. In the Christmas level, the game offers up such wisecracks as Gex saying “Herbie, I want to be a dentist!” in a funny voice, or “My name is Jack Gexington, from Halloweentown!” in a different funny voice. Dancing candy canes prompt him to make a comment about sticking tongues to metal poles. Some gags are timely – when Gex jumps on a snowboard at the end of the level, he bemoans that there’s “another snowboarding game”. How many today remember the days when mediocre snowboarding games were everywhere? There is no satirical twist to most of the jokes; Gex asks you to laugh at the mere act of quoting a movie, as if it’s the most hilarious thing in the world to know lines from old Christmas specials.

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The level itself is devoid of interesting sight gags, because anything funny is repeated ad nauseam. The first level’s big centerpiece is an evil Santa Claus. He throws a present at you; Gex chucks it back at him. “You’re on the list!” he cries. Repeat twice more. Everything in Gex, and other games of its ilk, is drawn out. Once, Mario would encounter certain boxes containing multiple coins, requiring multiple jumps to get them all; imagine if every box had multiple coins and you have a good approximation of the Gex experience. Every penguin, box and enemy must be hit three or four times to gather every fly; the level’s twisted elves require two or three hits to die. Anything can and will be drawn out by the developers if it means you can trumpet “20 hours of gameplay!” on the back of the box.

Why did nine-year old me make Gex 3 such an important part of his Christmas? I had never played any of the previous games. Gex 3 was the best-selling game in the franchise, yet it was still only a minor success, and critical reaction was decidedly mixed. I could have asked for any number of better games, yet I asked for this one. Perhaps it’s best to leave my puzzling childhood affection for Gex 3 as just that – the affection of a child, delighting in the snowy world of Gex on Christmas Day.

Notes

  • One curiously primitive aspect of Gex 3 – every time you find a remote, you’re kicked out of the level. Sure, Super Mario 64 did this too – but Gex 3 is no Super Mario 64, and it gets grating to run through the same areas.
  • Another odd element, seemingly designed to waste time: Gex 3’s mechanics are mostly copied from Gex 2, yet Gex 3 has a tutorial and Gex 2 doesn’t. And the tutorial is required if you want every remote.
  • A sign of what gaming was like in ’99 – Gex 3 comes with several demos, in a day when discs carrying dozens of demos were common and eminently disposable. Now, few companies even bother with demos. One demo is of a game that’s near-great, Soul Reaver (which runs on the Gex 3 engine); the others are the obscure, voodoo-themed action game Akuji the Heartless and Warzone 2100, an awkward attempt at a console RTS. All three are rather bloody and extremely M-rated; odd matches for a game as juvenile as Gex.

Crash Bandicoot in 2012

And here’s a fan’s tech demo of a modern Crash Bandicoot. It looks great, but that’s to be expected when all they needed to do was focus on graphics; after all, any real attempt at a Crash Bandicoot remake would be hit with a quick cease-and-desist order.

Crash Bandicoot is looked back at nostalgically as part of the first generation of 3D platformers – the Playstation’s Super Mario 64, if you will – but what’s interesting is how, besides graphics, the series was distinctly 2D. Movement alternated between side-scrolling areas where you could occasionally move further or closer to the camera and top-down platforming sections that still didn’t have much free movement; often, levels would switch between the two styles. Only the third game – also the best in the series – had open levels, in the form of jet ski and biplane minigames:

This hybrid between 2D gameplay and 3D graphics was pioneered by Bug! and Clockwork Knight on the Saturn, and was furthered on the Playstation with games like Crash, Tomba! and Klonoa. These types of games came along during a time where 2D games were on their way out; Sony discouraged their release, and in the United States they were eventually banned from being released at all on the Saturn.

These “2.5D games” fell out of favor on the Playstation 2, and now it exists mainly in the form of franchise throwbacks. Truly 2D games have made a minor comeback – in the form of an endless stream of “retro” indie games and occasional big releases like the brilliant Rayman Origins. Crash Bandicoot was innovative technically (it was among the best looking games on the Playstation and doesn’t look bad today), but in many ways it was just as old-fashioned as the 2D platformers it helped push to the fringes of gaming.