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Monthly Archives: April 2013

Nintendophilia, Part 2: Samus Aran and the Great Console Leap

So, I’m going to geek out a bit about Metroid Fusion here. At the time, I’d never really seen anything like it. It certainly wasn’t Mega Man. Instead, I got a tense, involved action game about a parasitic outbreak on a gigantic space station, and a lone Bounty Hunter’s attempts to contain the spreading infection. I was a serious sci-fi fan, and it hit the right notes for me. There had been an assumption until then in my head that handheld games, as a rule, were cartoonish in nature, and if the story was going to be present, it was going to be as light fluff on the edges of the game. Suddenly, here was a game with a serious plot, set in a big, open environment that wasn’t gated by levels. As an aside, it remains proof today that you can do a Metroid game with a detailed story, and that Other M’s failings should not be taken as proof that it should never be attempted again.

I’m not going to spend too much time heaping too much praise on it, save to say Metroid became my favorite series ever after that, and despite being a 16-bit handheld game, immersed me in its world.

Proof.

Proof.

Was this because I wasn’t playing the current console games, and so had little-to-no experience with actual, proper, 3D immersive gameplay? I wonder sometimes how much of the handheld world of gaming wasn’t experienced by most gamers because they were too busy playing console titles, and if they did play handhelds, how much of a diminished experience they had due to comparing them to their more powerful brethren.

More Proof.

More Proof.

Nowadays, handheld gaming seems to have been split into two categories: Angry Birds-style lighter games, and console-ish, complex titles, like what you see on the 3DS and PS Vita, which are powerful enough to simply port actual current console titles over. That funny little middle ground of the GBA era seems to be gone, that time where handheld gaming occupied a strange little space in between those two categories. While the modern status quo is certainly not bad at all (anything to let me play PS2 games in the palm of my hand), I do sometimes wax nostalgic for that era.

Anywho, it was around the time that the next Metroid installment came out, Zero Mission, that I got a hankering for the 3D adventures of Samus Aran, especially since, from what I could see, all the gamer magazines (remember those?) were falling over themselves with how good Prime was, and how good its upcoming sequel looked. And so it was that I finally, two generations after most of my peers, entered the console market with a Gamecube, simply because I wanted to play the console installments of my favorite series. Forget console wars, or the merits of the PS2 or Xbox. That was all I really wanted out of it, for it to be a Metroid Box.

Of course, it’d be dumb for me to keep a console simply to play two games on it, and so I became a gamer. My first Zelda title was The Wind Waker, and if you’re staring in horror at what I missed from that franchise, don’t worry, once the Wii’s Virtual Console came around, I took the time to play and beat most of the classic titles. In fact, I’m pretty sure I consider it my second favorite franchise now. And really, that’s why I continued on with Nintendo consoles. Not because of any sort of belief in their superiority, or lack thereof, but because those franchises that made me get into gaming were on them.

When people heap praises on things like Assassin’s Creed, or Mass Effect, and wonder why I don’t participate in the shared experience on the consoles they inhabit, it’s not because I dislike those franchises. They’re just not for me. In the limited time I devote to the hobby, I’d like to spend it with the characters and worlds I’ve loved since I was younger.

So, that’s how I define myself. Casual, because I didn’t have the upbringing of most of my game-playing peers, who’d honed skills in the way you only can when you’re 8 and have the time and patience. Casual, because I was and still am a person with plenty of other interests, who didn’t dedicate his time solely to it. That’s what I am, and I can’t help but wonder if there’s others out there involved in the hobby in that same way.

Nintendophilia, Part 1: The Game Boy Years

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Time for some irreverence to balance out the melancholy. So, let’s talk about something I’m sure has at least a minor presence in the lives of everyone here: Video Games. I suppose I label myself as a gamer. And if pressed, I call myself a Nintendophile, as that’s the company who’s wares I almost exclusively purchase. But it’s not out of a sense of fanboyism. You won’t find me posting angry comments about the other consoles anywhere online. They’re fine at what they do. With my loyalty, it’s more of a matter of familiarity and ease.

Another thing I would call myself is a casual gamer, were that not appropriated by  another demographic, the Farmville/Angry Birds/Words With Friends-only group. I consider myself casual in the sense that it’s not my only interest, I’ve never owned a Playstation or an Xbox, there’s a lot of seminal classics and important modern titles I’ve never played, and most importantly, I’m not very skilled. You won’t find me beating Ninja Gaiden or Contra, my difficulty settings are always normal or lower, and I stay away from anything multiplayer, as my defeat is assured and immediate.

See, while most gamers I know talk about how they went through the consoles from childhood to now, I kind of did it in a backwards, strange way. If you’re a casual gamer, or a non-gamer who’s only recently entered the market, perhaps your story is similar to mine. To me, this is what casual gaming means.

Growing up, I really didn’t do console games. I have memories of playing Super Mario World at the babysitter’s (never got past Vanilla Dome) and later Super Mario 64 at the dentist. As a testament to how I perceived games back then, I was content to never collect a single star, but instead aimlessly wander the castle and its worlds admiring the scenery, experiencing the at-the-time insane to me 3D graphics.

I never owned any of these consoles myself. My parents didn’t really oppose video games per se. They just opposed paying triple digits for something that didn’t have a pragmatic use outside of entertainment. Looking back, I understand that sentiment perfectly.

While consoles remained a mystery to me, I did, however, do handhelds. In fact, they were my exclusive gaming outlet until the previous console generation. And in the late 90’s, Nintendo pretty much owned the handheld market. Arguably, they still do. They just aren’t the only game in town anymore. The first system I owned was an aging, used original Game Boy I got from a friend, along with a used copy of Pokemon Red. That brick died pretty quickly, and soon would only work when plugged into the wall, and me and my brother soon upgraded to a shared green Game Boy Color, which I still have (check out its photo here) though the battery cover has long since vanished into the ether.

While it wasn’t the first game I played, Red Version was the first game I owned. As such, I feel like it left a permanent unconscious impression in the back of my head about what a video game was. That’s what I pictured when someone would say “video game”. To this day, I still gravitate towards 16-bit top-down sprite-based JRPGS automatically as a result (Chrono Trigger and Radiant Historia for the DS being the last ones I beat.)

Despite owning the system, games weren’t my primary interest, and so the titles were few and far between. At elementary school, I’d acquired a disturbingly anti-social habit of playing an old version of Tetris on our ancient PCs instead of going out for recess, and I soon got the Game Boy version used from a video store (take a moment to savor the combo of serious nostalgia in that sentence). We also had the Game Boy Color port of Super Mario Bros., a Mega Man game that none of us could beat called Mega Man Xtreme, and of course, the requisite Pokemon updates.

I’d say that gaming didn’t really turn into a primary interest until the Game Boy Advance came out, and my brother and I snagged used copies. I had the distinct pleasure of getting my hands on the port of Super Mario World, and finally beating it, years later. Another obscure pleasure of mine was the licensed movie games of The Two Towers and Return of the King, which were Diablo clones, hack-and-slash RPG’s which were far deeper than their console counterparts, and which everyone should play at least once.

And then there was Metroid. Funny story, the only reason I heard about that series was a multi-page article-style ad in one of those kid-friendly digest magazines. It was for Metroid Fusion, and it intrigued me, of all the reasons, because it looked like that aforementioned Mega Man game I was never able to beat. Turns out, it’d be my gateway to the console market. Better late than never, I suppose.

Find Mii: An Evil Model of Game Twisted for Good

So, I’m very close to finishing Find Mii 1&2 for the 3DS. And as I reach that milestone, I’m struck by aspects of how the game was built, and how it’s taking a typically malicious model of game design, and adapting it for thoughtful, healthy use.

My Mii Avatar in the top hat. Behind me are other Miis I've nabbed on Streetpass. Note the hats and masks, the incentive to play the game.

My Mii Avatar in the top hat. Behind me are other Miis I’ve nabbed on Streetpass. Note the hats and masks, the incentive to play the game.

For those that don’t know, I’m going to sum it up as quickly as I can. Find Mii is one of the titles that comes pre-loaded onto the 3DS. It’s a really simple turn-based RPG-style combat game, where you clear all the monsters in a room, then advance to the next one. Clearing Find Mii unlocks the harder sequel, and clearing Find Mii 2 unlocks the far more complex Secret Quest. You create a party, and battle until they all retreat, at which point you need to assemble another party to progress.

A full party of ten about to enter battle. The dog-faced Miis are randomly generated Wandering Heroes purchased with Play Coins.

A full party of ten about to enter battle. The dog-faced Miis are randomly generated Wandering Heroes purchased with Play Coins. The map shows the rooms I’ve cleared already.

You assemble these parties two ways. One method involves swapping streetpasses with another 3DS, something done automatically and wirelessly while the system’s in sleep mode. You download the other person’s Mii avatar, and it becomes a party member. The more times you swap streetpasses, the higher that character’s level.

The other method is to hire randomly generated Wandering Heroes using Play Coins. The sequel adds old Miis you already acquired via streetpass as recruitable characters for coins. You earn those coins via a pedometer built into the system, 100 steps equaling one coin, with a cap of ten coins a day, unless you go into system settings and flip the date, which I do.

Two human Miis in battle against a boss monster.

Two human Miis in battle against a boss monster.

Your Skinner Box-style reward is different hats you can put on your Mii avatar that can be seen by the other users you swap streetpass data with.

If you’re a bit of an OCD-ish collector like me, this is a drug. It’s addictive and involved enough for me to keep a map of the complex layout of rooms to guide myself so I can get as many hats as possible each run. I tend to game this way, trying to do most of the sidequests in RPGs, and unlock as many things as I can in other genres of games. When getting a new one, the first thing I do is look up the Gamespot/Gamefaqs page for that game, and look at what I can unlock, what I need to do to unlock it, and any optional content to be aware of.

Two Wandering Heroes facing the same monster.

Two Wandering Heroes facing the same monster.

The thing is, I recognize some of the design choices made in the game as being specifically designed to make you waste coins and characters unless you’re really good at strategy, and even then, sometimes it’s just luck of the draw. Sometimes you enter a room that’s darkened, or too hot, or too cold, and your party members will retreat, unless you have one who has the right type of magic (determined by shirt color) to light the dark, chill the fire, or anything else that needs to be done. Entering a darkened room without a character wearing white? Too bad, the entire party wipes, and you have to make a new one. In Find Mii 2, if you have an old Mii from a previous streetpass with a white shirt, you can simply hire them to clear the barrier. If not, or if you’re playing Find Mii 1, you’ve got no choice but to play the random Wandering Hero lottery until you recruit a hero in white. I personally have wasted 40-plus coins waiting for one. And even then, if you have a party of characters ahead of him or her in line, they retreat, too.

Usually when games are designed with coin or character sinks this way, it’s to milk money out of you. Facebook lives off of this type of game. I could easily see you being made to pay money for more Play Coins, or better party members. But this is a deviously designed, addictive sink of a game, using these traits for good.

Here’s the brilliant part. As stated above, streetpasses work by being near other 3DSes in sleep mode. And Play Coins are earned by walking or running. So to be able to play the game, you either have to go out amongst people and be social, or else walk and run a lot. So you’re either going to go out more, or be healthier. I’m already public enough to pick up at least a couple streetpasses a week (and not always from the same people, but still, thanks you, Agnes, for your super-poweful level 7 warrior). My benefit has been that I run even more than I usually do now thanks to it, pausing only to switch the date and get more coins.

Basically, it’s good to see a company taking this typically exploitative model, and using it for good instead of evil for a change, for activity and socialization instead of money and isolation. While I don’t expect every company to use their technology for such a good purpose, it does me good to see Nintendo taking the high road with this one.

Film Time: Artsiness Covers Everything

Time to reminisce a little, for fun and profit.
When I was a young lad, and by young I actually mean in Grade 12, I had the best final semester known to man: All arts courses. We won’t stop to analyze how this may have screwed me over in the long run (does anyone remember how long division works?), and instead focus on how entertaining it was to simply create things with people I liked. Combine that with a first-period spare, and those last few months more or less consisted of me taking it easy. That’s not to say I wasn’t doing anything, though. I was creating art, or helping in its creation. And so began a flirtation with an art form that never progressed beyond the amateur: Student films.
As a brief aside, nothing drives me up the wall more than people who can’t let go of the past, be it high school, university, or anything. So maybe it’s a wee bit hypocritical of me to reminisce, but then again I’m recalling the good times, not moping, like most people recalling their past tend to do.
Anyway, the filming. It was all pretty much the result of my friend, Agnes, the film nut. She had set her mind on becoming a famous director, and so was the first to volunteer to pick up a camera and shoot something whenever a movie was called for. We’d already done a few assignments, including re-filming a segment of the Roald Dahl story, Lamb to the Slaughter, as a Hitchcock film. That year, our final assignment was to write a script and shoot it.
Most people went for comedies, or schlock, stuff that could be bad and amateur on purpose. After all, if they messed up, it was still funny. In the real world, comedy is hard. But when you’re a student, it’s an easy fallback. As for us, pretentious as we were,  we wanted to do something serious. Enter The Game Master, an idea Ags had been floating around for some years, with the plot of a strange high school girl who uses Dungeons and Dragons to mess with the minds of a group of stereotypes (Jocks, Nerds, etc.) There’d be action in the real world, and then metaphorical D ‘n D action represented as sepia-toned dreams, because we were artsy like that. She gave me an outline, and we wrote our little screenplay together, based on what we had to work with in terms of the other people we had in our group.
I wouldn’t call it a disaster, but rather, a strenuous learning experience. I think the biggest problem was coordinating everyone’s schedule, with a due date looming, combined with the fact that we had no clue what we were doing. One problem was audio, with the wind constantly blowing over our lines, making them impossible to hear. At one point, I flat-out suggested we just subtitle the entire movie, but apparently we didn’t have the technology or the time. That was the perpetual problem with the due date hanging over our heads: We’d only get one shot to do a scene, because that might be the only time a group member was free, and the deadline was coming up.
The story itself wound up constantly getting changed, culminating in an ending that made no sense, mostly because we couldn’t agree on what was supposed to happen in the first place, and kept rewriting it. On the day we were to film it, the whole cast was supposed to show up to feature in the scene, but only myself, Ags, and another group member named Doug, who played our antagonist, showed up, so we just kind of winged something surreal on the spot involving me invading the sepia-toned D and D dreams, which I guess were suddenly more than that. Regardless, we went with it and claimed artsiness. Artsiness covers all mistakes.
I wasn’t present the day we finally screened it, but in the end, our few attempts at humor were the only thing that won our audience over, like when my Nervous Nerd of a character let out a girly scream of fright, overdubbed by another group member, and ran away in overcranked fast motion.
Despite me ripping on our young egos, the fact is that I had a ton of fun doing it, and started looking for any excuse I could to shoot more stuff with my friends, even if I tended to be the pack mule for the equipment more often than not. Of course, it wouldn’t survive past university, but it was certainly entertaining while it lasted.