Why the NES Zapper is One of the Greatest Things in the History of Videogames

Nintendo wanted to draw on a broader range of human experiences.  With its motion controls and sensor bar the Wii created a new sort of shared space between our living rooms and the dimension implied by the glowing screen. The revolution was that anyone now knew how to play a videogame.

But here’s the thing, Nintendo already did this, without lasers or gyroscopes or accelerometers or even more than eight bits of memory. I’m talking about Nintendo’s 1984 creation: the NES Zapper.

You can read my full article at Unwinnable.

Tuesday Links (05/28/13)

Dinosaur Comics: “We enter a world where the Internet never got invented. Broadcast media, like fries, rules supreme.” Fast food references and alternate history go together like two beef patties and special sauce.

Space is the New Canada:“In Canada, the wild is slow, certain death. Nature is an unstoppable destructive force and there is no overcoming it. Canada has not been conquered by man, we have simply built fragile fortresses in which we huddle, praying against the day the dark and the cold erode them and take us.”

Canada’s Boreal Forest is the Amazon of the North: And I daresay it’s as much in danger.

A post-console world: “Has the concept of a dedicated gaming machine become outdated?”

Game Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge

The long-running Ninja Gaiden series dates back to the eight-bit era, but the franchise’s 3D reboot began in 2004. All three titles in the modern series have been released for both Microsoft and Sony’s platforms, while this most recent title is also available on the WiiU.

I picked up Sigma, the PS3 port of the critically-acclaimed Ninja Gaiden, a number of years ago. Along with the excellent production values, the game brought a number of new innovations to the hack-and-slash genre, and was widely praised for its depth and even its difficulty, forcing the player to really master the controls rather than sleepwalking through the game as in some button-mashers. I remember pushing stubbornly onward, ignoring the game’s helpful queries as to whether, after one more embarrassing defeat, I wouldn’t perhaps like to switch to easy mode.

This latest release was made without the input of director Tomonobu Itagaki, who was behind the previous two titles. The story does follow closely on previous events however, and has much the same feel of the previous games, including defaulting to the kind of difficulty normally reserved for a hard or super-hard mode on a comparable game.

Combat is based on a combination of light and strong attacks, with certain combinations resulting in special moves. There are at least 50 combos for each and every weapon available, some requiring strings of close to a dozen successful button presses. The player can also guard, jump, and dash out of harm’s way.

Carried over from Ninja Gaiden 2 is a dismemberment mechanic. No, it’s not like the zandatsu technique found in Metal Gear Rising.  Here, you just wail on an enemy and eventually a limb randomly falls off. At this point the enemy is near death, which means two things: a) you can kill with either a few more hits or an instant kill execution technique, and b) if you fail to do so, they’ll make a crazed suicide attack on you that does heavy damage.

The story involves an end-of-the-world plot and at least one fairly iconic villain that is a highlight of the game for me. The whole game is pretty over-the-top. The story deals with a futuristic world wherein ninja and magicians co-exist uneasily with military and intelligence organizations.  Here, Master Ryu finds himself on black-op missions, slicing through armoured helicopters and wizards and cloned tyrannosaurs with his magic sword.

Technology and mysticism are both accepted at face value, in a universe that reminds me of another Japanese game franchise, Strider, as much as the classic American animated television series, Gargoyles. I kinda like this world. I like that a villain can appear from nowhere slinging Slavic curses and investigating the genetics of dead gods. In this reality, it would be rather surprising if the odd nut-job didn’t manage to become a supervillain.

In fact, I have no issues with the story, whatever. It is fun even when it’s forgettable. But this is a 100-percent action game, with the levels being so linear they’re practically on rails, and nothing to do but fight through wave after wave of enemies. And the practically unvaried gameplay quickly grows tedious.

Bosses provide a welcome break in the routine, with unique battle patterns that tend to require near-perfect executions to outmatch them, but it’s easy to lose patience. Defeating the T-Rex requires the player dodge and attack, dodge and attack, for what feels like 50 repetitions without a mistake. Cheap deaths from a damage box that doesn’t quite match up properly is the icing on the cake.

I managed to make it about halfway through the game before switching to easy mode simply for the sake of getting it over with.

To be fair, I didn’t spend any time practicing the enormous list of specialized combo attacks, partly because so many can’t be executed without an average enemy dying or blocking before they’re complete, and partly because there’s no in-game pressure or assistance to do so. Maybe if I’d gone out of my way to better engage with some of the more advanced attacks, I would have found the gameplay more interesting. But with the combat already feeling clunky, repetitive, and outdated, I suspect few players will be inclined to play around with 13-step combos.

Additionally, I would have liked to see Team Ninja acknowledge some of the innovations made in the genre over the last 10 years. Consider the Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry series, the latter for its fluid battle-mechanics and combo system, and the former for its stealth action (Tenchu: Stealth Assassins might make an even better point of comparison). Ninja Gaiden 3 actually does introduce stealth kills, in the very first level, then abandons it, almost never letting the player do it again.

The rapid-fire button combinations used for customized actions during boss fights, utilized heavily in God of War and borrowed by everybody else since (including Metal Gear Rising),  are fitted in here.  However, they’re done in such a pointless and half-assed way I again wonder at the point. It rarely goes beyond rapidly tapping the square button for two seconds.

Ryu can wall-climb and ninja jump up narrow crevices. This is a cursory exercise of pressing the jump button a few times. Platforming is out; free-roaming environments are out. I think of the fact that we have an actual ninja running through cities and leaping from building to building and how it’s no different than pressing X to open a door and it seems like a huge missed opportunity.

Have the developers never heard of Mirror’s Edge? Or Prince of Persia? They give Ryu a wall run ability, but it’s pointless since the level design isn’t there to make it needed. The odd impossible-to-screw-up jump seems like lip-service to the platforming other games have done so well, and it basically amounts to a tease. Add it to the list of half-implemented ideas done better elsewhere.

Team Ninja’s error is not Icarus’ — they have not reached too high only to plummet. Quite the opposite, this game suggests a profound lack of ambition. The result is a decent weekend distraction and nothing more.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge on Blogcritics.

Tuesday Links (03/19/23)

Canada Vs. USSR in Nintendo’s Ice Hockey: Damn it, Canada, I mean, what the hell!?

Interview Tips for When Someone Asks, “What Questions Do You Have For Us?”: Really some deceptively good questions.

Douglas Adams is still the king of comic science fiction: “[I]t makes you wonder why, 12 years after his death, no one has been able to supplant him from that throne.”

Who Will Be the Next Douglas Adams? Hopefully, Nobody: “Nor am I particularly concerned about taking science fiction’s humor crown from Adams; that’s like trying to take the melodic pop crown from Lennon/McCartney. You can try, but they’re just going to call you ‘Beatlesque.’”

Gaming Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories

Disgaea 2 was released in North America for the PlayStation 2 in 2006. Its predecessor was published by Atlus, three years prior, but since then, Nippon Ichi Software had established a forward camp stateside, and so it was NIS America that handled localization and publishing on the sophomore game of what’s become their flagship RPG series.

Previous to 2003, this developer would probably have been best known for Rhapsody, their critically well-received and very cute musical RPG (the only one of the series to be released outside of Japan). But with four titles in the main Disgaea series thus far, multiple re-releases of most of them (Disgaea 2 has itself been ported to the PSP in an enhanced version prior to this PlayStation Network port of the PS2 original), plus several spin-offs (the Prinny side-scrollers, for example), this wonderfully weird developer is gaining some real traction here.

As well they should. The gameplay in this title is unusual and deep, following the best tactical RPG tradition while putting some unique spins on it; the story is wacky, but not without an emotional core that allows for some real player engagement. The localization is top-notch. The voice actors are great, and I can’t find any fault with the translation.

The story involves a young man, Adell, who is the last human being in his world, the rest having been turned into demons by the Overlord’s curse. Set in one of many Netherworlds in interconnected dimensions, our hero’s goal is to defeat the all-powerful demon and turn everyone back to normal. To this end, he ends up kidnapping/escorting the Overlord’s daughter, who leads him grudgingly to her father while plotting to kill Adell, though her feelings towards him become more complex, over time.

The whole world has something of the feel of InuYasha, with a bit of Rama 1/2 thrown in for good measure. The characters are frequently morally ambiguous, though not irredeemable, and the whole thing is light-hearted and cartoony enough that what might otherwise be considered black humour is fairly innocent. Jokey things, like explicitly referring to an enemy’s in-game stats (I think Etna was at level 10, 000), push at the fourth-wall without puncturing it.

The gameplay is almost entirely comprised of battle tactics. There are a finite number of battles in the game, each a carefully orchestrated puzzle with multiple solutions. There is no world map and there are no dungeons, thus, no random battles. So this game is essentially chapter-based, and thus very linear (though the player can replay any previous battle at any time for bonus points, prizes, and cash).

At first I missed the world map. The inability to explore freely seemed both constraining, and to take away from the sense of a larger world that our story takes place in. Over time, though, it didn’t bother me much. The break from repetitive random battles, at least, is a plus to me.

In-between battles, the player’s party is (usually) in the main character’s hometown. This is the hub through which every other aspect of the game is accessed. There are a few NPCs wandering about who will simply chat with you, but almost everybody else has a specific function.

There’s the tutorial guy, there’s the item shop guy, the armor guy, the hospital (like an inn, you pay them money to heal your party), and there’s the travel guide, to whom you speak when you’re ready to go to the next level.

There are also two interesting side-quests that the player can dump, potentially, much more time into than the main game itself. The Item World allows one to literally jump into their own items, fighting their way through one randomly-created level after another, with the aim of powering up the item itself.

These levels are randomly generated each time you enter, and sometimes are not actually beatable (i.e., sheer cliffs or large gaps might prevent your party from either reaching the enemies they need to defeat, or the exit to the next level), which means you should never play the Item World without taking with you an emergency exit pass.

The other potential time-sucker is the Dark Assembly. All kinds of character upgrades can be done there. Mana earned in battles (which is tied to each individual character and is non-transferable) can be spent on reincarnation, allowing the same character to be reborn at level 1, but with a higher base potential, or even as a better character class (of which several can be unlocked). Mana can also be used to create new characters.

Depending on what you want to do at the Dark Assembly, you may need to win a vote from the senators there (all monsters), by bribery or brute force. It’s all very complicated and, for the purposes of the main game, not necessary, but there’s plenty of opportunity for party customization if you want to sink in the time.

In fact, you can generally get by without supplementary characters at all. Over the course of the game, enough actual story characters will join your party, that the addition of additional character classes isn’t strictly necessary, though it might be helpful.

The core of this game is still the battles themselves. You can take out up to ten characters per fight, and they don’t need to be decided in advance. The battlefield is grid-based, but includes a height dimension. Depending on weapons and attacks, your characters can damage one or more enemies at various distances. Enemies can also be reached via a lift and throw option that the stronger characters can manage.

It’s possible to stack up all ten characters on top of each other, like a totem pole, and to rapidly move characters across the field of battle in a single turn, via repeated lifts and throws. This can be critical when beating an enemy to the punch, or taking a key position early, can wildly change the tide of battle.

Enemies, too, can be lifted and thrown, perhaps directly into the path of another character’s area attack. And piggy-backing characters can also combo attack a single enemy, reaching further and hitting harder, while combination attacks also occur in other formations, with flanking characters jumping in to help a main attacker, offering free hits that don’t actually count as their own turn.

I haven’t even talked about geo effects, about which there is too much to say here.

Everything in the game, from weapons to special attacks to character types, is so customizable, no two people will set up their party or fight a battle in quite the same way. Perhaps it’s a little too customizable: since characters level up by defeating enemies and successfully performing actions, it’s possible to power up your party unevenly and hurt your long-term fighting power as a result.

But on the whole, this game is well-realized, polished, and simply fun to play. Though the depth is there, if you just want to complete the main game, Disgaea 2 can be tackled in a (relatively) casual fashion, which means I can recommend it for hardcore and more casual RPGers alike.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories on Blogcritics.

Tuesday Links (02/26/13)

Dinosaur Comics: “Alex Trebek announces his retirement from Jeopardy. . . Of COURSE the show ends with Trebek. It was always to end with Trebek.”

This Plastic Printing Pen Lets You Draw in 3D: How is it that we had 3D printers without first creating 3D pens? At least somebody’s filled in the gap.

More, More, More — How Do You Like It?: “The industry’s arms race with itself simply is not sustainable. Yet here’s Sony, blithely promising to build a bigger gun. They’d better watch out—the recoil’s a bitch.”

Gaming Review: The Cave

The game opens with a brief monologue, delivered by none other than the living spirit of a magical cave. Yes, a talking cave. It makes dating hell.

The Cave doesn’t take itself too seriously, and neither should you. Booming proclamations and self-aware melodrama are used to good effect in this entertaining adventure/puzzler. There’s also more than a little bit of black humour.

Choose three of the seven characters hanging around at the title screen to begin the game. I don’t know if archetype is the correct word for this motley crew. We have “the time traveller”, “the hillbilly”, and “the monk”, for a start. But though each has their own quest to fulfill — true love, enlightenment, that sort of thing — what they all have in common is a willingness to lie, cheat, steal, and worse things, in order to get what they want.

The control scheme isn’t terribly important. This isn’t a game of reflexes, by and large, but of finding the right item and taking the correct actions at the appropriate time. The game’s available on every system and it should make no particular difference what console you decide to download it to.

The game is ultimately in the tradition of the old text adventure games of the ’80s, though updated with a graphical interface, much like Windows updated the user experience for PC operating systems. Actually, creator Ron Gilbert previously brought this type of gaming to consoles with the NES-era title, Maniac Mansion, and guess what? It still works.

It’s also pretty cool to see Sega, which has been exclusively a software publisher since getting out of the hardware game in 2001, getting some buzz on an IP that didn’t originate in the ’90s. Sonic the Hedgehog is great and all, but I like seeing something fresh from some of the old guard.

Each character has a special ability, required for their own quests but otherwise mostly irrelevant. Some of them allow you to cheat at the non-character specific quests, shortening aspects of certain puzzles depending on who you have. But for the most part, the game is one of switching between characters, collecting special items, and using them appropriately.

The puzzles are fun, challenging without being maddening, with the solutions making sense in retrospect, although they may not be obvious at first. There’s no dying, although the cave is full of dangers. Characters immediately respawn if eaten, blown up, or squashed, with no major time penalty to the player.

The Cave’s biggest flaw is that they designed the game for replay but hampered their own replay value. Having finished the game with three characters, you’ll want to select another three, so you can see their special levels. But now you have to redo all those generic levels again along the way.

Doing a second or third run-through is fine for sidescrollers, platformers, action adventure titles and the like. But not the tedious steps of “solving” a puzzle you’ve previously completed. That’s boring.

The developers would have been better off having all seven characters available (though only three per section), and making the game longer so that each level could be completed without repetition. Alternately, replays with new characters should allow the opportunity of skipping previously completed sections.

Another possibility suggests itself. If the characters’ special abilities played a greater role in level completion beyond collectibles and achievements, a replay might take on new meaning. The same level might have had to be played in an entirely different way based on the characters available, essentially meaning entirely different puzzles would be solved depending on who you play with.

Alas, it is not so. The choice of characters has little effect on how you play the game, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. That’s a shame, since going through the game the first time was such great fun, I wish I could enjoy playing it again.

Make no mistake, though. That first playthrough is just enchanting. I think everyone should check this one out just once.

 Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: The Cave on Blogcritics.

Tuesday Links (01/29/13)

To make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe (Dinosaur Comics): “Okay, so we start with a superheated and dense force-unified space–”

The dystopian future of casual games: personalized, targeted pricing and mechanics: “This sort of thing is already happening in retail. Where you are could determine how much an item you view online costs. ‘A Wall Street Journal investigation found that the Staples Inc. website displays different prices to people after estimating their locations. . . If rival stores were within 20 miles or so, Staples.com usually showed a discounted price.’”