Sunday, December 31, 2006

Site Changes

I've upgraded to the new Blogger, which the executive bunnies at Blogger HQ assure me is totally not full of bugs.

As a result, there are some small site changes. The most obvious one is that Blogger 2.0 (or whatever the heck they're calling it) supports tags natively, so the completely half-assed system I've been using until now will go by the wayside and be replaced by the new things you'll see at the bottom of this post. Converting the old posts will take a while, so stay tuned.

If you notice anything broken about the site let me know so I can fix it.

Not Dead

Pardon the lack of updates (again). I'm in Perth, and the hotel I'm staying at has the slowest internet ever. I think they employ carrier pigeons to ferry my data packets back and forth across the Pacific.

But at least I actually have internet access now. Having lots of fun here; if you're in Perth and haven't seen me yet it's because I don't have your number. If you want to get in contact with me you can obtain my contact details from one of a number of people including Wuffie, Ju, or Jocelyn. I'm flying out the morning of the 5th so you're running out of time.

With any luck I'll be posting semi-regularly over the next few days. Keep clicking refresh.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Lack of Inspiration

Haven't felt like blogging the last couple of days. I'm sure I'll feel up to it soon, though.

Once again, I'm flying out for Perth on Wednesday 20 December, and will be in Perth until 5 January.

While I'm waiting for inspiration to strike my fingers, does anyone have anything cool they'd like to direct my attention to on the web? Matt has me playing this thing, which is cool and all, I guess. (*sigh*)

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine Post-Mortem

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine has a strange history. On the surface, it's a spin-off of Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. Dr Robotnik, the villain of the Sonic series, has a penchant for turning adorable widdle animals into hedgehog-killing robots. In Bean Machine, he's turned his mind to robotising the population of Beantown, who are (as the name suggests) anthropomorphic beans. It's up to you, as (presumably) Sonic, or, I don't know, some guy, to stop Robotnik's evil plan by manipulating falling sets of beans so as to combine beans of the same colour in a vertical playing field. In reality though, the Mean Bean Machine is actually just a re-skinned version of the Japanese hit Puyo Puyo, freshened up for sale to a western market.

Mean Bean Machine came out in 1993 for the Sega Megadrive (Genesis for you non-Australians), with accompanying ports on the Master System and Game Gear. The Megadrive version has also just been released for the Wii Virtual Console, and as a result I've now played through the game and finished it for the second time in 14 years.

The game's mostly just a Tetrisoid. Beans drop in pairs of two, in a range of colours. You have to stack them to connect same-coloured beans in sets of four, which can be in straight lines, square blocks, or arrangements that go round corners. Making a set of four beans clears them from the playfield, allowing everything resting above them to drop further down into the bean well. These dropping blocks can trigger further four-bean combinations, and so forth. If the beans reach the top of the playing field the game ends.

You can play the game in an "exercise mode", which sees you simply continuing to clear beans as the drops get faster and faster, much like traditional Tetris. This is fine, but the real meat of the game is in the two competitive modes - Scenario (you vs the computer) and Two Player (which as the name suggests pits you against another real person). In either of these modes, clearing more than four beans on a single drop results in the excess beans migrating to your opponent's playing field as un-coloured "refugee" beans, which can interfere with carefully planned combos and brings them closer to reaching the deadly top of the screen. Setting up the necessary combos to bomb your opponent is absolutely necessary to victory, but it can be deliciously difficult when your opponent is doing the same thing to you.

The Scenario Mode puts you into a series of 13 such matches of increasing difficulty, culminating in a showdown with Robotnik. Each match is against one of Robotnik's robots, who all have a different "personality", evinced by some cheesy character art and pun-filled dialogue. Winning a match rewards you with a password which you can use to resume play from that level. Getting through all 13 matches should take no more than a few hours, although there's a difficulty setting squirreled away in the options menu that you can turn up to increase the game's longevity.

Graphically the game looks like it could have been an 8-bit Master System title instead of the allegedly 16-bit offering that it is, but the star here is the gameplay so you won't be bothered. The sound is also very average for the era but does the job of not annoying you while you're playing. It's safe to say that you won't walk away humming any of the musical score.

Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine is one of the better early Tetrisoid games, and players of all ages and skill levels would likely get some fun from it. The content of the game is short-lived but thoroughly enjoyable while it lasts. As a download from the Wii Virtual Console it's attractive but it's hard to recommend unless you've already bought and gotten tired of the vastly superior Columns (also available on the Virtual Console at exactly the same price).

Wii SD Card Issues

So here's another small issue with the Wii that I wasn't expecting. I finally got an SD card for the system today and promptly backed everything up out of system memory and onto the card. Then I discover - you can't save directly to the SD card from within games, nor can games read save files on the SD card. Likewise, while you can copy downloaded Virtual Console games to and from the card, you can't play them from the card. The SD card is apparently for backup and transport only - anything you want to use has to be "installed" on system memory first.

It's a bit disappointing, but system memory is comparitively huge compared to memory cards of the past, so it's not too big a problem.

Friday, December 15, 2006

New Virtual Console Titles

For those Australians who haven't checked the Wii Shop today, you'll find the following additional Virtual Console titles available for download:
* Gunstar Heroes
* Ristar
* Pinball
* Columns
* Dr Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine
* Urban Champion

Which is awesome. (I'm playing the Bean Machine right now.) But it's still really disappointing that you have to play these games exactly as they were originally released. That's right - you can't even save your game to the hard drive. I'm playing Bean Machine and (can you believe it) writing down passwords. It's positively medieval.

Wiimote Battery Life

Hey, is anyone else out there finding that Twilight Princess drains the Wiimote battery a lot faster than titles like Rayman or Wii Sports? I don't know whether it's the nunchuk use, or the amount of sound that comes out of the controller, or just that I'm playing for longer periods, but it seems like Zelda is really chewing through the batteries.

By the way, for those who are caring, I've just finished the chase sequence/jousting fight that happens after you learn sumo, spent some time rushing round the village to ascertain the fate of the character involved in that sequence (happy results!) and am now about to tackle Death Mountain. Lots of fun.

I'm glad I've played Ocarina of Time though, as it seems like the game's assuming I have a lot of the Ocarina legacy skills, and is developing them all to their next logical extensions. For example, horse riding is the same as Ocarina - but with more depth. The boomerang is the same as Ocarina - but with more depth. Et cetera. Plus it's cool to see a heap of the Ocarina musical cues being worked back into the game (most notably Epona's Theme).

UPDATE: I'm not the only one blogging on battery life. Curmudgeon Gamer has something to say, too. 35 hours a remote seemed reasonable based on the drain I saw back when I was playing Sports and Rayman, but 15 is much more on the mark for what I've been getting out of Zelda.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dragon Quest IX Exclusive To DS

Ever since Sony took a right turn onto Arrogant Lane and started proceeding down the lonely path to Bizarre Business Decision Village, I've been predicting that certain third party developers weren't going to be too excited about accompanying them on their pointless egocentric sidequest. In particular, I've been anticipating that Square-Enix were going to start getting out of bed with the PlayStation 3 to prevent it taking their valuable franchises in new and unprofitable directions.

(Don't make me dig up the posts; I'm tired and I have a head cold.)

So it comes as no surprise to me that Squeenix have announced that the next full-fledged Dragon Quest title (Dragon Quest IX) will be a Nintendo DS exclusive. Actually, it should come as no suprise to anyone that Square's second-best-selling series will be appearing on the world's best-selling console, but there it is.

If you're not Japanese, you might not grasp the significance, but Dragon Quest sells well enough over there to give Square's own Final Fantasy franchise a run for its money. It's effectively like saying Final Fantasy XIV will be coming only to the Wii. It's a big coup for Nintendo and a real kick in the nuts to Sony.

Full story via Gamespot.

UPDATE: Oh, and the Sydney Morning Herald (that bastion of accurate reporting and journalistic integrity) says it'll be taking advantage of the DS wireless to have multiplayer, allowing you to "embark on adventures with real friends" in what my imagination fervently hopes will be a throwback to Secret of Mana.

RIP Gamecube

Today in the United States will see the release of the Gamecube version of The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess.

This is the last game that will ever be released for the Gamecube. The console's lifespan is now officially over.

Cheers for a lot of good times, Cubey.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Name Explained


See, when I named this blog The Dust Forms Words, what I thought I was referring to was the way that meaning can arise from apparently random interactions in complex systems, which seemed to go well with a gaming blog. But I've just been digging through some very old writing journal files in the depths of my hard drive, and it turns out that I was instead remembering the phrase from the following scrap of poetry that I wrote some many years ago:

Coming late to mortality
I found I had no friends there.
These desperate happy people
burn their bonfires, and I
like a ragged moth,
stalk their edges.

I have half a lifetime

The dust forms words;
our fingertips trace their secret names
and all of them are Sorrow.
Which I suppose just goes to show how one can't trust one's memory.

Twilight Princess First Impressions

I've just made my way through to the first save point in Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii, and while it's kind of great with a lot of strong points, can I just say that if I wanted to play Shadow of the Colossus I would be playing Shadow of the motherfucking Colossus?

I mean, there's only so many times an untalkative rustic protagonist can ride a horse over an ancient bleakly-lit decaying stone bridge, you know? And clearly I'm going to be doing a lot of that, because the game's been heavily pimping me its horse-wrangling techniques long before it's given me a weapon or shown me the combat controls. *Sigh.*

Red Steel Impressions

Among the titles I purchased when I bought my Wii was Red Steel. I did this despite my own better judgement, despite the numerous negative reviews, and despite the unappealing box cover. I did it because it was the only Wii launch title available in my local store which wasn't aggressively family friendly.

I think a lot of other people are going to buy it for the same reason, and they're going to feel just as traumatised by the sheer hideousness of this game as I was.

Red Steel casts you as an American bodyguard named Scott. In a plot ripped straight from the intro to any late 80s arcade game, your girlfriend has been kidnapped and it's up to you to run and gun your way through an army of implausible enemies in order to get her back.

The game's presented as a first-person shooter. You use the Wiimote in the same way you'd used a mouse on a PC - to aim, to look around, and to shoot. My first reaction to trying out this control scheme was that you could make a pretty decent shooting game along these lines.

Red Steel is not that game.

The game feels lazy on almost every level. Other than the basic point and shoot functionality (which is fine), the rest of the controls are unintuitive and annoying. You'll be shaking the nunchuck around like an epileptic as you try to open doors, pick up guns, and change firearms on the fly. Zooming in (which you'll frequently need to do) is accomplished by making a skewering motion towards the TV with the Wiimote, which (trust me) gets old real fast.

The graphics feature some nice lighting effects but are otherwise appalling, packed with horribly pixellated textures and a legion of enemies who all look exactly the same. Key items in the environment (including ammo, enemies, and some aspects of terrain) are outlined with shades of bright white and yellow that make them look like they're the victims of bad greenscreen special effects.

The plot is painfully shallow and the majority of characters speak with exaggerated Japanese accents. Some of the plot is rendered through comic-book style hand-drawn cutscenes which could be generously described as "in the tradition of" Max Payne. However, what was an effective and deliberate stylistic choice in Max Payne here feels like Ubisoft were just too lazy to do a real cutscene.

I can't talk about how bad this game is without mentioning the menu system, which should probably be listed somewhere in a book on how NOT to design a user interface. Just getting into a game will require mousing over a variety of non-intuitive and fairly random neon-signs, reading their (often unhelpful) mouseover text, and then dragging and dropping them onto a big billboard. The best that can be said for the whole appalling menu experience is that it's consistent with the rest of the game.

The game coding isn't exactly rock solid either. Hit models for enemies are way off - sometimes you'll hit an enemy even when you're nowhere near them, while at other times nothing less than a direct shot to their head or chest will do the job.

I've played less than two hours into the game, and I'm giving up. It's going back to the game rack, and probably never coming back down. Ubisoft's nun-punching kitten-beating development antics have left a bad taste in my mouth, and really, in a world already packed with top-notch first-person shooting games, why on Earth would you waste time playing one as mediocre as Red Steel?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Lego Star Wars II Post-Mortem

Lego Star Wars II for the PlayStation 2 is packed with style, innovation, and great gameplay, and yet it just isn't as good a game as its predecessor.

I've actually had this one sitting next to my laptop for a while, begging me to post-mortem it so it can go back to its home on my game rack. Somehow I've just never gotten around to putting up the post - probably because I've already had the chance to vent about some of its problems.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Lego Star Wars is a fairly simple game concept - it's Star Wars, done entirely with Lego, formatted as a platforming-action videogame. The original title, which covered the plot of the three prequel movies, was an absolutely wonderful moment in gaming. It had intuitive controls, family-friendly difficulty, a great sliding scale of objectives, and more charm and humour than you could poke a lightsaber at.

If it had one problem, it was a lack of length. From one corner of the interblog to the other, players were unanimous in criticising the game for its overall shortage of content, best exemplified by the fact you could finish everything the game had to offer within a single day. Even I took a shot at the game (amidst an otherwise glowing review), although I did refrain from using the phrase "I've found longer games growing on food I left behind the couch."

When it came to creating Lego Star Wars 2, it should not be said that Traveller's Tales was deaf to criticism.

Let me say this straight up - Lego Star Wars 2 is about three times as long as the original Lego Star Wars. That's not to say it has more content. It's roughly on a par with the first game. No, it's just going to take you three times as long to get through it.

There are a lot of fine things that have succeeded by taking roughly thirty seconds of gold and stretching them out over inanely lengthy periods. The sport of cricket is one. The entire wrestling career of Triple H is another. Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time is a third. Lego Star Wars 2 is sadly not one of those things.

The game proceeds largely as the first one did. Upon starting the game, you'll be plonked down in a central mission hub (in this case the Mos Eisley Cantina), and tasked to make your way through the plot of the three original Star Wars films using a variety of little Lego characters. You can do these in a fairly non-linear fashion - once you complete the first level, you can jump straight to Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi without having to complete A New Hope. Completing levels involves running, jumping and shooting your way around a variety of generic platforming levels, which are themed after particular segments of the movies.

Each level can be completed in both Story Mode and Free Play. Story Mode is a straight run through the level using the appropriate characters as assigned by the game. You'll play as (for example) Luke as he returns from the Jundland Wastes to the Lars Homestead. Generally you're followed around by an entourage of other characters, such as Obi-Wan, R2D2 or C3PO. You can change to any other character in your entourage on the fly. In addition, a second player can help you out by controlling a character.

In Free Play mode you have access to a much wider range of characters, chosen from a pool that you've unlocked. Various characters have different abilities, so you'll want a good selection of powers at your command. For instance, Obi-Wan and other Jedi can move Lego bricks through the power of the force, while R2D2 can open certain locks and hover horizontally for short distances. Many bonus sections of levels can't be reached in Story Mode, requiring you to return in Free Play with special characters to find all the secrets.

Each level has a set of 10 minikit canisters to find. Uncovering all ten (which usually requires playing in Free Mode) rewards you by putting a Star Wars-themed Lego vehicle on display at the Cantina, and by showering you with Lego studs (which are the game's currency). Each level also has a stud-collection target - finding that many Lego studs within a level rewards you with the status of "True Jedi". That's not all - there's also a red power brick on each level which unlocks a cheat or power-up for purchase at the cantina shop.

Each target you meet in the game will reward you with a Gold Lego Brick. These can be assembled back at the Cantina into a range of doorways which give access to bonus levels. None of these bonus levels are very interesting, with the exception of a short reasonably fun area themed after classic non-Star Wars Lego.

All that unlocking may sound like a blast, but it's really not. For example, you'll need to obtain the functionally identical True Jedi status on both Story and Free Play mode, which is every bit as tedious as it sounds. The canisters and power bricks are placed poorly, with the design philosophy apparently being to deceive and defeat the player, rather than reward them for creative exploration. You'll probably end up turning quickly to an FAQ to get them all, unlike in the first game where this goal was reasonably achievable without external aids. The fun in Lego Star Wars 2 lasts almost exactly the same length of time as it did on the franchise's first outing - it's just that this time when the fun's over the game is still going.

The level designs are mostly broken this time around too. Rather than promoting fast-paced see-what-happens gameplay in the tradition of the first game, there's an emphasis on solving finicky problems, backtracking, and getting killed a lot. As an example, you'll often need to disguise yourself as a stormtrooper to open certain door locks. This is accomplished by obtaining a stormtrooper helmet from a dispenser located somewhere on the level. Once you have the helmet, you have to get back to the lock while still wearing the helmet. The catch is, if you take any damage whatsoever, the helmet falls off, requiring you to walk back to the dispenser.

These sections are intensely aggravating. There's one bit like this on the Death Star which involves a lift which will have you wanting to apply fruit peelers to the faces of the game's developers. The result is uneven pacing, inordinately frustrating punishment for very small failures, and game segments which are less a challenge of your skill than they are of your patience.

What makes it all worse, of course, is the fact that many of the levels have unending waves of enemies, which just keep coming at you. Sometimes you can shut off these enemy attacks by closing doors or pulling switches, but more often you just can't. Strangely, the earlier levels are plagued by this problems more than the later levels, so if you perservere you may find your experience improving.

The game as a whole feels like something that's been created by many hands, rather than by a single guiding intellect. Certain levels are clearly designed by totally different minds than the ones that precede them. Courses of action that are encouraged in one area will be brutally punished in the next.

In all this game-bashing, I need to say that this is still a very good game. It's a top-shelf platformer that's a highly recommended buy if you're a fan of Star Wars, Lego, or just the genre as a whole. Each of the game's characters looks cute and highly true to the source material. Levels are punctuated by laugh-out-loud humorous cutscenes, with the little Lego characters engaging in a range of Jedi slapstick. The controls are reasonably tight, and there's a lot of fun to be had.

It's just that it's not as good a game as what came before it. What was cute, clever and fun the first time round is now mainstream, homogenised and mixed up with an extra-big helping of annoying. It's likely a lot of people who are choosing which of the games to buy will go with this one just because it's based on the better movies, but if you're a gamer of taste then play the original.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Dear Stalker

Can the following individual please step forward:

* The person from Melbourne on an iinet account who reached my blog by googling my RL name? I'm probably the person you're looking for, I just don't know who you are.

Also, if you're that person from Illinois on Illinois Century Network who keeps googling "The Dust Forms Words", feel free to add me to your blogroll or favourites list to facilitate your visits in future!

While I'm here, a hearty thanks to whoever tagged The Citizen Kane of Games on Blinkbits, and to whoever put some of my Wii posts up on (which I suspect was Brinstar, judging from the links I'm seeing).

December Carnival of Gamers

My post The Death of Boardgames (and its follow-up) made it into this month's Carnival of Gamers, hosted over at MMOG Nation. Huzzah.

Although (at least right now) I'm listed as The Dust Forms Worlds. Which, y'know, it does. I guess.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Upcoming Game Releases - Australia

More to remind myself than anything else, here's forthcoming game releases over the next few months in Australia that look interesting.

Dec 12 - Myst (PSP)
The frustrating, shallow, and visually attractive point-n-click puzzler finds a natural home on Sony's frustrating, shallow and visually attractive handheld.

Jan 12 - Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (X360)
The Halo-esque first person shooter I got to try out at TGS. I don't own a 360 but this game's come closer to persuading me than anything yet.

Jan 17 - World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade (PC)
Blizzard's MMOG expansion is probably going to sell considerably better than most full fledged games.

Feb 8 - Rule of Rose (PS2)
Despite all the mediocre reviews it's gotten, I still want to play this disturbing survival horror populated by evil 1930s teen and pre-teen girls. Can't believe that the OFLC let this one slip past, but I guess their loss is Australia's gain.

Feb 8 - Contact (DS)
It's what all the cool kids in the blogging circle seem to be playing, so I'm dying to try it to maintain my guru-like position at the top of the interweb's totem pole.

Feb 22 - EA Replay (PSP)
EA Replay is an anthology collection, but what an anthology collection! Ultima VII, Syndicate, all the Road Rash games, both Jungle and Desert Strike, Virtual Pinball, Mutant League Football, Budokan and the original Wing Commander. I'm almost willing to forgive EA their many sins just because of this collection. Almost.

To the best of my knowledge there's still no Australian release date for Final Fantasy XII (PS2), Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops (PSP), Elite Beat Agents (DS) or Elebits (Wii). Anyone care to tell me differently?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Wii First Impressions

It's time for babbly barely coherent late-night fanboi ranting. As mentioned earlier, I got my Wii today, and spent most of the day trying it out with friends.

It represents a number of firsts for me:

* First time I've bought a non-handheld console on launch day.
* First time I've spent nearly a thousand dollars on a new console, games and accessories without feeling the slightest hint of buyer's remorse after getting it home
* First time I've been able to just hang out for hours with a console operating system without feeling the need to fire up a game or "play something".

If you happen to have a Wii, it's well worth making the effort to get it connected to the internet. For those who invested in the USB Wi-Fi dongle for the DS, it's a pretty simple process, as the Wii can connect through the exact same peripheral. Otherwise it's going to involve setting up wireless access points or waiting for the forthcoming release of the LAN adapater.

I'm happy to report that the Virtual Console shop does actually sell more games in Australia than previously reported. I've secured copies of both Golden Axe and F-Zero from its pixellated clutches, and they're just as much fun as I remember. Both are a little overpriced, coming out to about $12 AUD each. (Bear in mind that Golden Axe represents a grand total of 40 minutes of play from beginning to end.)

Making your little virtual avatar, or Mii, is great fun, and it's even better if you have a ton of friends around to get in on the process. My Mii Plaza is now populated by little virtual facsimiles of most of the people I know. These little hooligans become the playable characters in Wii Sports and Wii Play. Miis you're not using appear in the background and in crowds. I don't know of any third party software using them yet, and it's a little hard to see how you would outside of chatroom avatars, but I hope they don't get completely ignored by forthcoming releases.

The Wii uses friend codes, much like the DS, as a measure to stop random strangers stalking children and suchlike, but they're implemented a lot better than on the DS. Instead of having a unique code for each game, you get a global code for the system. Swapping friend codes with someone (which can only take place outside the Wii environment) will allow you to exchange mail, send your Miis visiting their console, and (presumably) eventually allow you to select that person as a preferred opponent in multiplayer titles. As the Wii is ideally always left on, there's a lot of scope for interaction with your friends list to take place here. I've already received a ton of Miis from the household of Wuffie in Perth. (Damn you, miniature Karlski, why are you always bowling in the lane next to me?)

You can get so involved in sending mail and playing with Miis that you can forget to play any games entirely. Which says something about how friendly, engaging and easy to use the Wii interface is. It really feels like Nintendo telepathically read all my subconscious disappointments with the PSP and made me a little white console to cheer me up.

The feel of the controllers really varies from game to game. Tennis, which is included in the Wii Sports pack-in game, is incredibly addictive and an absolutely perfect four-player introduction to the system. Rayman Raving Rabbids also delivers a fantastic experience from the unique Wiimote controllers. On the other hand, the boxing and gold components of Wii Sports are an exercise in pure frustration that could easily turn off new players. I guess it's like any controller - it's only as good as its software support.

Anywho, I'm going off to sleep now because I have a busy day tomorrow. If I'm up to it, I'll put up my impressions of Casino Royale in the morning. (Short version: just because it's probably the best Bond film ever doesn't mean it isn't full of disappointing pacing and story problems.)



I have a Wii. We have decided that the letter "i" must be substituted with the letter "o" whenever it appears in sets of two. So, I should say I have a Woo. I've created a ton of those little virtual avatars (Moos).

Nintendo has learned from its mistakes with the DS, and instead of each individual game having a unique Friend Code there's now a global one across the console. Mine is:

8712 4214 6924 1286

Friend me! I needs my little virtual people to go conquering! More details on my experience will follow once I don't have people right here in my living room wanting to wave the Woomote around in the air some more.

He Loves Bees

"Back in AI, the challenge was, hey, let’s build the game in such a way that your life just gets weird. The producers came back to me and said, what does that mean? I said, I want you to look at the web, and suddenly nothing quite makes sense anymore. And they said, well, we could do a little pop-up window. I said, what I want is, after you visit this website, your car only drives in reverse and none of your friends remember your name and suddenly your mom doesn’t speak English. And they kind of gave me this blank look and I said, yeah, I’ll settle for a pop-up window."
Yes, that's right, Gamasutra's interviewing Elan Lee, creator of ARGs such as The Beast, I Love Bees and Hex 168. Check it out now before they're erased from continuity, leaving nothing behind but a cryptic message encoded in the back of a cereal packet.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Tomorrow is Wii Launch Day Australia

As the post says, tomorrow is when the Wii hits store shelves in Australia. I called EB Games on Monday, who first told me that as they are the Nintendo-preferred supplier in Australia (whatever that means) there is absolutely no chance they will not be able to meet all their current pre-orders. Then they told me that, despite their earlier promises, they wouldn't be upgrading my pre-order to match the Toys 'R' Us deal, and that it was also now too late for me to take my business to Toys. I think there was demented gloating laughter involved. Screw you, EB.

In any case, does anyone feel like coming into Civic tomorrow morning from about 7 am to help me camp the console spawn? I probably don't need to actually line up, but dagnabbit I missed the 360 launch and I'm sure as heck not lining up for a PS3, so this is my one chance to fanboi over this generation of consoles. I'll bring snackages!

Console Lines

Did I mention how xkcd is awesome and I have all the shirts?

UPDATE: On the plus side, we're totally not in Japan, and there are unlikely to be 1,500 people in the line.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Canadian Film Festival at Electric Shadows

From this Thursday to Sunday at Electric Shadows you've got a chance to catch up on some alternative Canadian cinema. Sydney's Canadian Film Festival (which is just finishing its Sydney run) is bringing six of its films to Canberra, including:

* Bon Cop Bad Cop
* A Simple Curve
* Tales of the Rat Fink
* On the Trail of Igor Rizzi
* The Novena
* Midnight Movies

Matthieu Ravier was kind enough to send me advance screeners of some of the Festival's movies, although of the three films I received, only one is on show for Canberra viewers. It's a shame that Next: A Primer on Urban Painting and Sidekick aren't leaving Sydney, as those were both quite watchable despite some minor faults. Also missing from the tour lineup is Terry Gilliam's new film Tideland.

The only one of the six Canberra offerings I've seen is Midnight Movies, which purports to investigate the 70s phenomena of midnight cult movie screenings. It looks into El Topo, Night of the Living Dead, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Harder They Come, complete with relevant writers and directors musing over their movies. Unfortunately it's a little light on content and comes across as more of a fan tribute than a particularly noteworthy documentary. Still, if you've enjoyed any of those movies there's some good nostalgia to be had out of it.

After leaving Canberra the tour is showing in Melbourne from 14-20 December, and Adelaide between 5-20 January.

Electric Shadows is closing down soon so this is one of your last chances to be a part of Canberra history. More details on the movies and the tour can be found here.

New Daedalus Project Findings

Nick Yee's Daedalus Project has some new results up:

Dealing With Dilemmas
Nick finds that (surprisingly?) players over 35 are more lenient, accepting and open minded when it comes to class builds, team roles and rule enforcement.

Horde v Alliance in Battlegrounds
Looking at a range of mechanical and sociological factors behind the widely held WoW belief that the Horde have an edge in player vs player gameplay.

Interview with Shavaun Scott
Discussing issues of online gaming addiction with a qualified therapist.

Not the most incisive stuff to come out of the Daedalus Project but still an interesting read. As usual these findings arrived in my inbox accompanied by an instruction to continue pimping the site to friends. It's a data collection and analysis program relating to issues around massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) play patterns, beliefs, and demographics, operated by Nick out of Stanford University. It's already turned out some fascinating stuff. If you are a current player of any MMOG (especially World of Warcraft) you should definitely go take the surveys. And if you've done them before - well, there's some new ones up.

Go here to take the surveys.

The Last Supper

Via Wonderland:

My attention has been drawn to Nerdy Shirts, which is yet another faceless internet business manned by killer robots which produces humorous geek-themed shirts. Funny clothing and cute models: what's not to like?

On a warm summer evening in 1981, Mr. Ghost agreed to go out to dinner with his long time friend and business associate. It wasn't until his friend ordered a giant white ball that he knew something was awry. Disastrously awry.

Also this:

Monday, December 04, 2006

Australia Wii Virtual Console Launch Titles

Following is a complete list of the classic games that will be available for download in Australia via the Wii Virtual Console when the system hits stores on Thursday.

* Donkey Kong
* Mario Bros
* Wario's Woods.

And... that's all. Note that there's no "Super" next to "Mario Bros" either. Let me know if you actually feel like paying money for any of those titles so I can laugh at you and question your masculinity. Plus this little gem:
The TurboGrafx system never made it to Australia and New Zealand, and those countries will again not receive TurboGrafx games.
Sorry, what? And that makes sense how? I guess with all the Sony bashing, Nintendo were feeling lonely and left out.

You know what's NOT on that list, that other countries are already able to download and play? Warning: those subject to bouts of demented sobbing and teeth gnashing may wish to look away.

* Bomberman 93
* The Legend of Zelda
* F-Zero
* SimCity
* Super Mario 64
* Altered Beast
* Sonic the Hedgehog
* Ecco the Dolphin
* Golden Axe

Again, in case it's not clear, Australia will NOT be getting those games at launch. That sound you can hear is the squeaky laugh of Ecco the Dolphin as he taunts you while fighting time-travelling underwater aliens.

All of this is via Go Nintendo, and I don't really have any experience with how reliable they are prior to today, so for all I know they could be lying through their snaggly inbred little teeth, but it sounds true, and really, isn't that what's important? They're sourcing it from Nintendo World Report, a fairly obnoxious site that uses popups (visit at your own risk).

Thanks to Curmudgeon Gamer for the heads-up.

UPDATE: This turned out to all be horrible puppy-kicking lies, except for the bit about TurboGrafx games. The launch lineup was actually quite decent and it expanded quickly over December. This is the last time I trust Go Nintendo for my news. Pfah, I spit upon their graves.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

50 Most Significant Sci-Fi Novels Meme

Via Cap'n Oblivious:

Below is Time's most significant SF novels between 1953-2006.

The meme part of this works like so: Bold the ones you have read, strike through the ones you read and hated, italicize those that are seriously overrated, and put a star next to the ones you love.

Dust Forms Words note: The original meme used italics for "started but never finished", but because I don't do that with books ever I've replaced it with something more relevant.

1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
3. Dune, Frank Herbert *
4. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein
5. A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
6. Neuromancer, William Gibson
7. Childhood's End, Arthur C. Clarke
8. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick *
9. The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
10. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
11. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
12. A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
13. The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
14. Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
15. Cities in Flight, James Blish *
16. The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
17. Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
18. Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
19. The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester *
20. Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
21. Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
22. Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card
23. The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
24. The Forever War, Joe Haldeman *
25. Gateway, Frederik Pohl
26. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, J.K. Rowling
27. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
28. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson *
29. Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
30. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
31. Little, Big, John Crowley
32. Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
33. The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
34. Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
35. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
36. The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
37. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
38. Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
39. Ringworld, Larry Niven
40. Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
41. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
42. Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
43. Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson *
44. Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner *
45. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester *
46. Starship Trooper, Robert A. Heinlein
47. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
48. The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
49. Timescape, Gregory Benford
50. To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

33 out of 50. I don't do too badly, there. Actually, it's entirely possible I've read Childhood's End and/or Caves of Steel and completely forgotten it. For some reason a lot of Asimov and Clarke just goes in one eyeball and out the other. I think it's something about those horrible 70s pulp covers that so many editions of their work are saddleed with. And I've read one-third of the first Foundation trilogy, so do I get a third of a point there?

I have to say I can't completely agree with a list that includes Lord of Light and The Silmarillion and leaves out The Shining, I Robot and Flowers for Algernon, but I guess that's not the point of the meme.

Next post will be actual content, I promise.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

PS3 Backwards Compatibility and My Game Library

You've probably heard by now about the PS3 backwards compatibility problems. I thought I'd take a look at my game library and see exactly what difficulties I might have accessing my extensive back catalogue on Sony's new baby. The results are a bit depressing, although it's not as bad as I thought. Anecdotally I hear the biggest losers are those with a large number of anthology or retro gaming titles. Or, apparently, owners of PS1 Final Fantasy games.

Burnout 3: Takedown
When the user selects LOAD PROFILE, the following text appears: "Saved game data on memory card (PS2) in MEMORY CARD slot 1 appears to be corrupt. Please delete the corrupt data using the console's browser."
Throughout gameplay, vehicle engine sound effects play overlapped by static audio distortion.
Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening
Throughout gameplay, when the user's character opens a door, the "warping" sound effect plays overlapped by a static noise.
When the user selects Driving Games, Car Chases, or High Scores from the Main menu, and the subsequent menu screen appears, certain menu options do not appear, and/or portions of the menu option text do not appear.
Final Fantasy Anthology
On the Final Fantasy V Disc (Disc 1), when the user’s character progresses to the first save point, and selects SAVE from the Game Menu, a black transition screen appears and the title hangs.
Final Fantasy Chronicles
Throughout gameplay of the Final Fantasy IV Disc, various graphics randomly drop out and/or flicker.
Final Fantasy IX
Throughout gameplay and FMA's, when the user’s character walks up or down on screen and the camera pans up or down to follow the movement, four transparent horizontal lines appear across the screen.
Final Fantasy Origins
Throughout gameplay of Final Fantasy II, when the user encounters a random battle, and the battle transition screen appears, the brightness level is adjusted.
Final Fantasy VII
On Disc 1, when the first battle begins at the Mako Reactor, a flashing black square appears around the user’s character's pointer.
Final Fantasy VIII
Throughout gameplay, when the user's party encounters a random enemy in the "world map", and the “pre-battle” transition screen appears, approximately 40 - 60% of the “pre-battle” transition screen appears black, and the remaining portion of the screen appears corrupted.
Guilty Gear X2
On the Guilty Gear X2 Title screen, with a PS3 connected to a CRT television, and the PS3 using composite out, multiple vertical lines appear flickering throughout the screen.
Throughout gameplay and FMA's, the screen flickers.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence
During gameplay, with 1 PS3 user hosting a Team Deathmatch Game Type, and 5 other users as clients, the host is randomly disconnected, and is unable to reconnect
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (Limited Edition)
Throughout the title, with the PS3 using HDMI out, the screen appears divided horizontally, and both of the divided portions of the screen display out of sync from one another.
Prince of Persia: Warrior Within
When the user completes the first level, an FMV plays, and a black screen appears, a random audio track plays for approximately 1 second and the screen flashes.
Resident Evil: Outbreak
The title is unable to perform intended HDD functionality.
Silent Hill
Throughout gameplay, when the user’s character shoots an enemy, a medium pitched tone plays.
Tekken 5
In TIME ATTACK mode when Xiaou is selected as player, the title does not recognize controller input when the user progresses to STAGE 6. (Fixed with system software update.)

You can check your collection (one at a time) by going here.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

Just saw A Scanner Darkly, and I'm of mixed opinions.

On the one hand, director Richard Linklater delivers a suprisingly faithful adaptation of Phillip K Dick's story of near future drug dystopia. A cast including Keanu Reaves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr deliver some excellent performances, and the film's unique rotoscoped visual style is unique and impressive.

On the other hand, though, Linklater appears to have no real feel for pacing or story continuity, and doesn't really achieve either a coherent science-fiction conspiracy story or Dick's mind-warping tale of drug abuse and its consequences.

The strongest parts of the film are the drug-warped Tarantino-esque conversations, and some of the very satisfying plot-twist reveals. The characters are well drawn and visually compelling. However, the film never really capitalises on any of these strengths, seeming almost scared of developing intensity and momentum. A very sedate and understated musical score contributes to a sense of aimlessness throughout the movie.

The film also ends on something of a turgid note. The transcendant monologues and images that conclude Phillip Dick's original book translate poorly to the screen under Linklater's authorship, and the movie finishes with a thoroughly butchered and near-incomprehensible text paraphrasing of the powerful author's note from the final pages of A Scanner Darkly.

As far as adaptations go, it unobjectionably translates the source material into a visual medium. But ultimately it adds nothing new to the work and suffers from a lack of real inspiration which means it's unlikely to convert new fans to Dick's writing.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

So You Want To Be A Casual Gamer

The good Sir Juffles has recently directed me to a post by LiveJournal user CricketK, which was apparently made after CricketK was shown the Guitar Hero 2 videos in my last post.

Last night I found out that a game called 'Guitar Hero' exists. It looks like something I would actually enjoy playing! In fact - I even want to have a go. I don't really mind how crap this makes me look in the world of games. I've spent pretty much my entire life thinking that games were all first-person shooters or RPGs, or really, really long (like the Sims), none of which I am the least bit interested in. Are there other games out there like this? Non-violent, ranging in difficulty levels, short and kind of self-mocking? The only other thing I've tried that looked like this much fun is the one where you dance around in front of the camera waving your arms to burst the little balloons.

[See original post here]
I know that a lot of people who read my blog aren't gamers, and occasionally feel a little left out by all the games talk. I also know that a disturbing amount of non-gamers who've played Guitar Hero love it to bits. So if you're the sort of person who's looking for games which are short, non-violent, and don't have an off-putting difficulty level, I thought I'd do a post just for you.

Here's the good news: you're living at the dawn of a new era for this type of game. You are squarely in the target market for Nintendo's new generation console (the Wii) and handheld (the DS). You're also a demographic being massively catered to by developers of mobile phone games and web based applet games. There's a lot of choices out there for you.

So I've made a short list of games below, for a range of different systems, that you might enjoy. Every game on this list is (a) easy to learn, (b) can be played in sessions of ten minutes or less, (c) is non-violent, (d) is easily available for purchase in Australia, and (e) comes highly recommended by myself. Here we go.

Guitar Hero & Guitar Hero 2 (PlayStation 2)
These are doing great business in Australia and internationally. These rhythmn-based games let you play air guitar to a variety of classic songs. They come with a custom guitar controller. They're challenging, but their easiest difficulties are perfect for non-gamers, and playing them is incredibly satisfying. You can play two-player if you have two guitars. Check out what I've had to say, what game review site Gamespot has to say, or watch some gameplay on Youtube.

We Love Katamari (PlayStation 2) and Me and My Katamari (PlayStation Portable)
The off-beat Katamari games see you playing a tiny space alien on a mission to roll up a variety of Katamari. Katamari are giant balls of... stuff. Katamari get bigger as you roll stuff up in them, and if your Katamari is big enough you can roll up pretty much anything. You might start off mouse-sized on a carpet, rolling up paperclips and pencil sharpeners, and move on to tennis balls, books, pot plants, chairs, tables, bushes, people, trees, houses and finally national monuments, continents, and planets. Crazy fun and ideal for any level of skill. Read my thoughts, Gamespot's review, or some gameplay.

Animal Crossing (GameCube) & Animal Crossing: Wild World (Nintendo DS)
The world of Animal Crossing sees you as a human child arriving in a town populated by (mostly) friendly anthropomorphic animals. You wander around the town harvesting fruit, catching fish and bugs, digging up fossils, socialising with animals, buying and collecting furniture and clothes, redecorating your house, and gardening like there's no tomorrow. It's totally laid back with no time limits, dangers, or particularly difficult challenges, and it's a surprisingly large amount of fun. It responds to real-world time signals to show night and day, and celebrates your birthday, New Year's, and other occasions. The Nintendo DS version lets you visit the towns of other people who own a copy of the game, and hang out with their characters. I've never got round to posting my thoughts, but suffice to say I love it, as does Gamespot. Check out some gameplay, too.

Nintendogs (Nintendo DS)
Basically a puppy simulator, Nintendogs lets you get your hands on up to three virtual puppies, of a large variety of possible breeds, and care for them, train them, and play with them. It makes use of the DS microphone and touchpad - you can call your dogs by name to make them walk over to the screen, rub the touchscreen to scratch and pet them, provide them with food and toys, and take them for walks. They can be trained to do tricks on voice command, entered in competitions, and when you have more than one puppy they'll play with each other and compete over toys. It's ultimately a little shallow on the "game" side of things but if you've ever enjoyed a Tamagotchi or just like dogs it's probably right up your alley. Don't worry - your dogs never get sick or die! You can also check out a Gamespot review or some hilarious gameplay footage.

Puzzle Pirates (PC)
Okay, I actually haven't played this one myself, but I hear good things. It's an online game where you play a pirate, in a world filled with other pirates (who are all played by other players). Pretty much every task in the world, from repairing a ship to cooking up food, is represented by a classic puzzle game in the tradition of Tetris, Bejeweled, Atomica or suchlike. It's apparently a load of swashbuckling fun. Check out the official website, the Gamespot review, or some (silent) footage.

There's a bunch more but this post is getting kind of long. What, you say, no XBox or XBox 360 games? Sorry, you're kind of not their target market. Plus, I don't own those systems and tend to ignore a lot of what comes out for them. In final recommendations I'd just add that Dance Dance Revolution is of course excellent but nearly impossible to get hold of in Australia; your options are pretty much just the inferior Dancing Stage series, which feature significantly less interesting song lists. If you don't mind a game based largely around surgery then Trauma Center for the Nintendo DS might be worth a look, which sees you as a surgeon. Brain Training is another DS title which combines a "mental fitness" regimine of puzzles and tests with an impressively large library of sudoku problems. And Nintendo's new console the strangely named Wii will ship with a title called Wii Sports which sees you playing tennis, ten-pin bowling, golf and other games using a motion sensitive controller, where you make the physical actions of bowling or golfing with your hands to cause the appropriate action on screen.

Hope some of these tickle your interest, and keep reading The Dust Forms Words for more news about interesting titles for all gaming systems!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Freebird on Expert

To disguise my complete lack of content over the last few days, I present to you the following video of some guy's 4-star run on Guitar Hero 2's "Freebird" (as made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd), on Expert difficulty.

If you're not familiar with the track, stick with it, and watch what happens after the final lyric "and this bird you cannot change". It makes my fingers bleed just watching. Some believe that this may just be the hardest 9 minutes and 41 seconds of gaming ever created.

They'd be wrong of course, because they've clearly never seen this. Played, er, three and a bit times.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Animal Crossing: The Movie

Thanks to The Angriest:

Only in Japan.

Also, that damned raccoon DOES have all the gold tools! I knew the little bastard was holding out on me! Catch one of every fish my shiny metal ass! Grrr....

Friday, November 24, 2006

The Death of the Board Game, Part 2

My post The Death of the Board Game from last week has raised a fair bit of commentary and attention, so I thought I'd go back and flesh it out a little more.

The hypothesis I put was that:
  • (a) board games are already a highly marginalised area of the gaming world
  • (b) that a large part of the traditional market of board games has been taken over by video games
  • (c) that those who still play board games rather than video games do so because they are (i) social, (ii) tactile, (iii) less threatening than video games, and (iv) require no console or system buy-in
  • (d) that video games are likely to overcome all four of those obstacles within the next seven years.

To support point (d), I provided the following points:

  • (i) Many people currently do play video games in the physical proximity of others; this will only become more common as gaming devices become smaller, cheaper, and more portable. In any case, audio and videoconferencing hardware and software is becoming cheaper, more reliable and more effective.
  • (ii) A variety of innovations including the Nintendo DS, Nintendo Wii, and force-feedback touchscreens are continuing to make gaming a more tactile and physical experience.
  • (iii) As videogaming moves into the mainstream, you can expect that within 7 years over 90% of people will be engaged in a game-like digital space at least once a fortnight. Whether this be a traditional videogame, an avatar-enabled multi-user desktop, or a chess game via mobile phone, gaming will be something that a majority of people are familiar with. Also, design of both software and hardware will continue to improve and lower the entry barrier to game spaces for the casual user.
  • (iv) Convergence will likely mean that you will buy a gaming device in the next seven years without meaning to. This is likely to be either a mobile phone/gaming system, a media disc player/gaming system, a portable music player/gaming system, or a pocket PC/organiser/gaming system. It's likely that within seven years the number of people who own a gaming system will be comparable to mobile phone ownership.

All this seems fairly logical to me. It's touched nerves with a lot of people, though, who (rightly) feel that all this in some way threatens their beloved hobby. I'm one of them. I'm a board gamer. I don't want to stop. But I will.

The arguments put by the naysayers amount to the following:

  • (a) No matter what market share video games gain, there will always be some people still playing board games.
  • (b) No video gaming system can replace the social and tactile elements of board games, no matter how advanced.
  • (c) Video games are just inherently less flexible than board games.

All these are true to some extent. But I think the premise is faulty. The people making these arguments are suggesting that as long as they are correct to any extent, the board game will survive. And that's just not the case. There's an extinction threshold.

The board game, as you know it, in the form of an illustrated box containing a heavy card board, printed cards, and manufactured pieces, just cannot survive. To make a game on this level takes money. It takes money to print and manufacture, to advertise, and to stock in stores. It requires stores which are willing to stock it. All of this only turns a profit in a market where there is a certain threshold of consumer interest. And from everything I understand about the market, that threshold is only barely there at the moment.

If videogames continue to advance and capture even another 25% of the board game market, it's going to make it very hard on gaming companies to keep publishing their products. And believe me, that 25% will happen, and it's a conservatie estimate. It's not a 25% that's going to come out of the Settlers of Catan end of the market, it's a 25% that's going to come out from the market of Monopoly and Connect 4 and Guess Who?. It's a 25% that represents a new generation of parents who are comfortable playing video games with their children. It's a 25% that sees traditional family activities moving into digital spaces.

And these games are the bread and butter of boardgaming. They're the games that teach children to like board games; those children then grow up and become the purchasers of Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. Digital gaming over the next seven years is going to erode that entry level platform, and that's really what's going to move the gamer threshold into the unprofitable area.

On the point of whether videogaming can replace the tactile elements of boardgaming, I honestly don't see why not, but let's revisit that point when everyone involved has had the chance to try out the Wii and maybe some force feedback technology.

There's no doubt that board gaming is a social activity. And I'm sure that everyone who board games can relate to the hassle of trying to round up four to six people for a decent game. It's hard. It's likely that in your mind you have a subset of your acquaintances marked "people who are up for a good board game". If you're lucky, you have a good six or seven people in that folder.

Within seven years, those six or seven people will become two or three.

It's another extinction-level phenomenon. One of those people you know is going to spend less time with board games as a personal choice. One of those people will be video gaming more because that's what their partner, child, or close friend is doing. After that point, you'll lose another two because they just start getting sick of how hard it is to get people together for a game.

Gaming is about stories. You can't spend time with a gamer of any persuasion without hearing them tell a game story. If they're a roleplayer, they'll tell you about that one time when their halfling cleric was fighting a grey ooze. If they're a boardgamer, they'll tell you about that game of Diplomacy where they did this amazing thing playing as Germany. And if they're a video gamer, they'll have a story about what their night elf was up to last night.

Trust me, you're going to be hearing a lot more about that night elf. And if you want to be able to meaningfully interact, you're going to want to have a night elf too.

I'm not talking just the hardcore gamers here. Within the next two years, you're going to have a conversation at work about video games. Within three years, a digital game-like space will be a regular topic of chat at your work environment. Within four years, if you're not gaming you'll be missing pop culture references in your favourite shows.

They're going to leave you behind.

Lastly, there's the issue of whether video games are inherently less flexible than board games. And we're talking here about the ability to use house rules, to cheat, to cut the new player a break, to take a handicap, and so forth. And - well, video games are less flexible. They can only do the things the programmers thought fit to include. But they don't have to be as flexible to squeeze board games out. They only have to be close enough.

Sure, there'll probably always be a couple of tiny niche markets for board games which are either (a) Cheapass Games affairs where you make most of the pieces yourself, or (b) luxury collector's pieces at insane prices. But for board games to continue being viable as well-produced, affordable, tactile, family experiences, there needs to be a certain number of people willing to buy them. And within seven years, that number just won't be there.

You can count on it.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thursday Movies - December

We'll, we're almost at the end of the November program for Thursday movies, and there's been mixed success. Thanks to the big group who came to see The Prestige, the two or three who checked out The Wrong Man, and the just me who saw The Descent (you missed out!).

If you're interested, here's the schedule for the next month. As always, always Thursday nights, always Hoyts Belconnen, always $11, and always the closest session to 6.30.

November 30 - A Scanner Darkly
Richard Linklater's rotoscoped adaptation of Phil Dick's sci-fi drug odyssey. Starring Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr and Woody Harrelson.
December 7 - Casino Royale
A new James Bond, a new more gritty take on the franchise, but plenty of the old huge explosions, fast cars, and loose women. Stars Daniel Craig and Judi Dench.
December 14 - Eragon
A putrid-looking high fantasy tale of swords and dragons that fancies itself the next Lord of the Rings. Let's all go along and have a good laugh. Stars Jeremy Irons, obviously not yet tired of wading through chainmail-bikini muck.

On the 20th I'll be off to Perth, so movies are then postponed until January, but if you're interested in my picks for the intervening weeks, I'd recommend:

December 21 - Flushed Away
Aardman (creators of Wallace and Grommit) present their take on the town mouse and the country mouse via 3D animated feature. The only talking animal movie this holiday season that doesn't look like it will make me want to kill children.
December 26 - The Queen
Helen Mirren stars in a look into the British Royal Family in the wake of Princess Diana's death. Significantly better than the off-kilter premise might sound.
January 4 - The Return
For the first week in January we have Leonardo DiCaprio doing more "serious acting" in Blood Diamond, or Sylvester Stallone milking a dead cow with Rocky Balboa, but honestly I'd rather just go with this middle-of-the-road supernatural horror title starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Hit me up for more details closer to the dates.

The Descent

I saw The Descent tonight, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It's easily the best horror movie of the year (or of last year, if you're not Australian), and the only real problem with the film is that some may find the ending unsatisfying.

The film follows six women on a caving trip in the Appalachian mountains. Among the women are Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), whose husband and child were killed a year ago in a car accident, and her friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza).

Things begin going wrong when a cave-in collapses a tunnel behind them, and Juno reveals she has deceptively brought them to an unexplored cave system. Soon the six are suffering from injuries, running out of equipment, and beginning to hallucinate. That's when they discover that they're not alone in the cave system - that something deadly lived down here long before they arrived. The real horror begins, though, when they find that whatever's down in the caves is far less frightening than what the women brought along with them.

It's a strong film, mixing a Hollywood sensibility for horror with a British feel for reality and for character. It's frequently derivative of genre classics such as The Shining and Aliens and yet at the same time it seems determined to break as many horror conventions as it can manage.

It's frequently frightening, and it achieves this not with fake-outs and sudden surprises, but with an honestly disturbing underpinning. I found the early parts of movie featuring the women crawling through narrow caves uncomfortable to watch (as an admitted cave-claustrophobe myself) and the scene involving the setting of a splintered bone is similarly like to cause averted eyes.

This is a movie filled with strong female characters. Despite being a horror movie about six women in an extreme situation, the film never resorts to gratuitous nudity, convenient bisexuality, or any use of stereotypes. The characters are strong, intelligent, resourceful people in a genuinely terrifying situation. Protagonists Sarah and Juno in particular are two of the most gripping female characters I've encountered in the last year of film. Juno comes off very much like Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, only better, while Shauna Macdonald as Sarah manages to carry much of a very offbeat ending solely on the strength of her presence and acting.

The direction and cinematography are both praiseworthy, though not world-shattering. The film's visual style uses stark, stylised shots that still retain a very storyboarded look. It makes use of the uncommon lighting angles and colours inherent in a caving expedition to turn very simple sets and props into incredible artistic achievements. Top-notch costuming and makeup do a great deal of the film's characterisation work, and this is one of the few films where you're really likely to notice these elements carrying the production.

The film's sound design is understated but effective. You'll rarely have cause to notice the soundtrack or the effects, but they complement and support the action perfectly. You won't walk away wanting a copy of the soundtrack, but it would certainly be a poorer film without some of the tense music used.

This is a film which will alternately fill and defy your expectations - one moment you'll be chafing at the film's constant homages to its predecessors, and the next a plot twist will have you whispering in amazement to the person next to you. If you're a horror fan, you definitely need to see this film, and if you're a less dedicated horror watcher, there's definitely worse things you could spend your ticket money on.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

PSOne Games for PSP require PS3

That's a lot of uses of "PS" in the post-title. Huh.

Anyway, some time ago Sony promised us we'd be able to download and play original Playstation games on the PSP. The word is now in that (as I feared) the games can't be downloaded direct to the PSP - you have to obtain them through the Playstation 3 online service.

That's right, you have to own a Playstation 3 AND a PSP to download and play the games. Oh, and they could cost anywhere from $10 AUD to $30 AUD, depending on how much Sony feels like ripping us off. Plus, if you don't already have a memory stick for the PSP that holds at least 600 meg, you'll need to get one of those too.

If I wasn't enjoying the PSP port of Tales of Eternia so much right now I'd be tempted to call it a useless piece-of-#$!& doorstop. Dagnabbit.

Full story here via Gamespot.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Capcom Classics Collection Remixed Post-Mortem

I picked up the PSP Capcom Classics Collection Remixed for two reasons. One, because I understood that David Sirlin had had a hand in it and was curious to see the results, and two, because I was really hanging out for some portable shoot-em-up action. It turned out to be an almost perfect anthology title, ruined by two nearly unforgiveable flaws.

This is a collection of Capcom's 80s and early 90s arcade hits. Note "arcade" - these are all the cabinet versions, not the console ports. You get 1941, Avengers, Bionic Commando, Black Tiger, Block Block, Captain Commando, Final Fight, Forgotten Worlds, Last Duel, Legendary Wings, Magic Sword, Mega Twins, Quiz & Dragons, Section Z, Side Arms, The Speed Rumbler, Street Fighter, Strider, Three Wonders, and Varth.

As best I can tell, they're all fairly accurate ports of the originals. The exception is the boardgame-esque trivia title Quiz & Dragons, which has had its mid 80s list of questions replaced with a new set more appropriate to the 21st century. (It's an improvement, trust me.)

There's bound to be some nostalgia in there for just about anyone who's over 20. The personal favourite for me is the short but charming Three Wonders, or possibly top-scrolling shoot-em-up Varth. Old-school brawler Final Fight is also a gem (as is any game featuring Metro City mayor Mike Haggar).

Each game comes with a couple of pages of in-game text describing the game and its history. You can also unlock some very relevant tips, cabinet and concept art, and music for each game by achieving some fairly easy in-game goals. There's also the option to play each game in a variety of visual modes, including a widescreen version to fit the PSP screen, a 90-degree rotated mode where you turn the PSP sideways to replicate an original cabinet display, and a remix mode which presents the original game in its original aspect ratio in the center of the screen, except with the HUD info shuffled off to the right.

Theoretically, the game supports multiplayer, and supports it quite well. Anyone running the game near you can tag in mid-game, exactly like at an arcade cabinet, and tag out just as easily when their "credits" run out. (The games all feature unlimited continues, by the way.) This would be an absolutely fantastic way to play these games, except that there's no download play - each player needs their own copy of the game.

I don't know about you, but it's a very rare occasion when I find another person who owns a PSP and even one of the same A-list games that I do I think the only non-download play I've ever got up and running has been Liberty City Stories. The chances of encountering another player who owns this game outside of some kind of Capcom fan convention I'd have to rate at zero to none.

I don't know whether the lack of a download option was a technical constraint or not, but I can't imagine that these games are too big to download individually via wi-fi. It just seems like a horrible oversight to not let you serve the game out from a single PSP.

The other crippling flaw with Capcom Classics Collection Remixed is the lack of any form of save game. You can't save your progress inside any of the games, which means if you want to finish one, you have to do it in a single sitting, just like in ye olde-timey arcade. I can't even begin to talk about how hideously inappropriate that is in the age of prolific arcade emulators like MAME, let alone how out of place it is on a portable system. Games in this collection can take anywhere up to four or five hours to get through (I say after finally clocking Quiz & Dragons) and I absolutely cannot believe that no one thought that was a problem.

Anyway, if you absolutely must own these games in a legal portable format, then Capcom Classics Collection Remixed is definitely your best bet. It'll work even better if you can con a friend into doing the same thing. But if you're just as happy to play them at home, then stick with emulators, because you'll get a better experience out of it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Do They Know It's Christmas In The Barrens?

My World of Warcraft guild and I are running something of a charity drive. Well, actually, it's less of a charity drive and more of a caper. You should definitely get involved. You'll find the full details at the caper's newly established blog, Do They Know It's Christmas In The Barrens?

Please, give generously this holiday season.

Guitar Hero 2 Post-Mortem

Guitar Hero 2 is a lot of fun, and features some excellent design aspects, but the extreme difficulty and song selection may exclude some new players.

Guitar Hero 2 largely follows the same format as the original game. In fact, if you've played the first you'll be able to jump right in and barely notice the changes. Coloured notes move down the screen towards you, in time with a musical track, and you have to hold the matching fret buttons on a novelty guitar controller and strum at the appropriate time. There's a whammy bar to make those long notes interesting, and you can tilt the guitar upright to deploy "star power" and start the audience cheering and clapping along.

If you've bought both this game and the original, you'll end up with two guitars, so it's a good thing that Guitar Hero 2 includes some new multiplayer modes. "Face Off" makes a return from the original game, which sees each song divided up between the two players, with Player 1 taking a riff, then Player 2, and so forth, with both players joining in on the chorus and ending. There's also "Pro Face Off", which lets both players play the entire song at the same time.

The most interesting new mode, though, is "Co-operative". Here, one player plays the song's lead guitar track in its entirety, while the other player takes the rhythmn or bass track (depending on the song). Players share a single score, star power meter, and rock meter. The effectiveness of this mode really varies from song to song - Killing In The Name Of and John The Fisherman, for example, have killer basslines, where you can really tell if your bass player screws up. On some others, though, the lead guitarist may as well be playing alone, as you can barely hear the other player's efforts. When it works, though, it's a lot of fun.

The sound balance as a whole throughout the game is fairly sub-par. The lead guitar is nice and loud, but the vocals are often barely audible, the rythmn and bass lines vary in quality, and the crowd cheers and special effects are often loud enough to drown out the drum track and leave you struggling to find the beat. You can mess with the audio settings to some extent, but you can't isolate the guitar tracks individually or separate the vocals from the rest of the band, so it's hard to get a satsifactory result.

The track listing isn't quite as great as the first time around either. Guitar Hero 2 has an unremitting focus on metal and hard rock. Despite the inclusion of songs like Rock This City and Heart Shaped Box, the sequel just doesn't have the same generation-spanning appeal as the original game. Metal fans will likely love it, but those who enjoyed the first game for tracks like More Than A Feeling or Killer Queen might feel a little left out.

It also doesn't help that most of the songs are covers, and some of those covers are outright appalling. Killing In The Name Of, You Really Got Me and Misirlou are all particularly nasty, bearing little if any resemblance to the versions you know and love. On the other hand, Primus apparently provided the gold masters of John The Fisherman, so you can hear that one in whatever original glory it can be said to possess.

The bonus songs are great, though. Guitar Hero 2 follows the tradition of its predecessor by including a bunch of indie and lesser known artists as optional extras, including some fantastic tracks like Buckethead's Jordan. Plus you can play Thunderhorse by Dethklok from the Adult Swim cartoon Metalocalypse, and the extended version of Homestar Runner's Trogdor.

Probably the most controversial aspect of Guitar Hero 2 is the difficulty. It should be said straight up that Guitar Hero 2 has one of the best tutorial schemes ever used in a game. It's short and to the point. I've seen maybe a half dozen people use it now, and it does a fantastic job of not only teaching you the basics but also building your confidence and inducting you into the atmosphere of the game. The tutorials are followed up by supplementary tips on loading screens prompting players to try out techniques they may not have attempted before, or explaining the game mechanics in more depths.

All that teaching will go to good use, because Guitar Hero 2 is vastly more difficult than its predecessor. Easy mode is still fairly easy, and works fine as a "party" difficulty. Medium, though, is more akin to the original game's Hard mode, and Hard is exponentially harder again, throwing five frets, three-note chords, and long complicated rhythm passages at you until you want to cry. It's likely that a lot of players will just hit a brick wall at the end of Medium and not be able to progress further, which is more than a little disappointing.

For all the difficulty, when you do manage to make the skill jumps necessary to conquer previously impossible songs, it's incredibly satisfying. The game doesn't need to reward you - the mere consciousness of the insane fingering you just pulled off is deeply motivating. Very few games have ever motivated me as much to keep improving merely for the sense of mastering the skills.

There's a practice mode this time around, that lets you slow down songs to learn the fingering, or play (for example) just the chorus, or just the solo. I haven't actually found it very useful - I prefer to just keep repeating the song - but I'm sure some people will get a lot out of it.

Guitar Hero 2 still holds up well as a party game. The difficulty and song selection mean it's less suitable for non-gamers than the original, but on the other hand the wider variety of multiplayer modes compensate.

Thanks to Sim for coming down from Sydney for a marathon two-day Guitar Hero session. It turns out she's a fiend on a bass guitar and I wouldn't have been able to unlock all the extra bass guitars without her.

Friday, November 17, 2006

World of Warcraft CCG

For those who were remotely curious about the World of Warcraft collectible card game, here's the rundown:

1) It's pretty much just Upper Deck's putrid Versus system wrapped up in a new box. That is to say, Magic: The Gathering with none of the charm and frenetic pace.

2) The "loot cards" that you get in each pack are each redeemable for 100 loot points. Loot points can be spent to get "a range of items". In practice this translates to (a) desktop wallpaper, (b) screensavers, (c) sleeves for your card deck, (d) tabards for your WoW character, and (e) a trinket that lets your WoW character turn into an ogre at will. Tabards cost 2,000 points (20 booster packs of the CCG). The ogre trinket costs 25,000 points (250 booster packs). So, in short, don't get excited about the loot

3) The one cool thing about the game is the multiplayer. They're releasing "raid decks" soon, where basically (as I understand it) one player runs this overpowered pre-made raid deck, and a bunch of other players team up to take them down. Sounds interesting, but not worth buying into the game for.

Short review: the World of Warcraft card game isn't worth your time, even if you're a WoW fan. Avoid as though it were made of zombies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wanted: Guitar Hero Australia

While I'm on the subject of Guitar Hero II, is anyone else secretly wishing they'd release a Guitar Hero Australia? Think of the possibilities: Powderfinger, Jebediah, Something for Kate, Magic Dirt, Jimmy Barnes, Icehouse, Hunters and Collectors, maybe some Silverchair... the list goes on.

It doesn't help that the tune-up noise in Guitar Hero II that plays when you change menus sounds an awful lot like the start of Holy Grail.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Guitar Hero II - First Impressions

Guitar Hero II came out in Australia today, and I have my copy. It comes complete with new guitar, which I have obligingly adorned with a zombie teddybear sticker from one of the large selection of decals provided with the game.

The first thing that jumps out at you is that it's hard. In the original game, I could beat No One Knows on Expert, and have a pretty good stab at Bark at the Moon on Hard. In Guitar Hero II I'm being severely challenged by the game's third song (Surrender) on the default difficulty. It's insane.

Also, the cover artists blow. A bunch of songs that should be instant classics are butchered by some horrible cover vocals. I think the developers realised this, too, because the default audio settings have the vocals turned way down so you can hardly hear them. That's not too big a fault, because after all, the guitar's the star here, but if you're a fan of tracks like You Really Got Me or Who Was In My Room Last Night then you'll be ready to use your shiny new guitar to bludgeon someone to death.

That aside, it's great. Moments after firing up a rendition of Mother you'll be strutting around and jamming the whammy bar like there's no tomorrow. It's really a blast.

I haven't had a chance to try the multiplayer yet, but having bought both games I now have two guitars, so some axe-grinding showdowns are in store for the future.

Also, in case you haven't been exposed to the interblog for the last month and have thus been coccooned from news like some kind of contagious leper-baby, the game features both Deathklok and Trogdor.

Because the Trogdor comes in the NI-IGHT!

The Death of the Board Game

I have a copy of the Warcraft board game. It's a fairly decent game, certainly not one of the worst I've ever purchased. It's got attractively designed pieces, an understandable instruction manual, and you can get into a game without too much set-up. It does a fantastic job of capturing the original computer game's dynamic of base building, resource management, and strategic troop deployment.

It does such a good job, in fact, that you'll find yourself wishing you were just playing the original game.

People still play board games. A fairly large number of people. And there are some fantastic board games still being made. My friends and I still get a bunch of fun out of Betrayal at House on the Hill even on the twentieth or thirtieth game of the thing.

But to some extent computer gaming has made board gaming redundant. It's now possible to engage in a multiplayer strategic game over the internet. Better still, in a computer game there's no set-up, there's no packing away to be done when it's over, and all the dice rolling and inconvenient maths is done for you. Plus there's sound, graphics, and a potentially much faster pace.

Are the reasons people still play board games anything more than a lacuna of technology's advance? Will there still be a market in a future where (1) everyone owns a handheld gaming device (possibly incorporating a mobile phone), (2) everyone is comfortable using gaming technology, and (3) such devices are capable of reliably networking with other devices globally or locally from any location?

I asked Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games this question when I met him at Conflux this year; his reply was that he felt there'd always be a place for social, tactile gaming. As far as social gaming, I don't disagree. I think people will want to bring their gaming devices together in one place even when they could play the same game from remote locations. It already happens in the culture of LAN parties, and I think it would happen more often if top-end gaming rigs were inherently more portable.

But tactile gaming? It's an attraction to physically hold the pieces, but when it's the last and only attraction that board games still have, I don't know that it'll be enough.

Given current trends in the design of both handhelds and mobile phones, it seems likely that within five years a majority of the western world will own a gaming device capable of playing wirelessly networked games. And within seven years, there will be multiplayer high-quality multiplayer games available for that platform which reach a casual mainstream audience.

And at that point, I think we'll be witnessing the death of the board game.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Endless Legions

I hate games where enemies endlessly respawn.

Well, okay, that's a lie. In the context of an RPG it's not only acceptable, it's desirable. If the enemies don't respawn, then where will you harvest your precious, precious XP?

And in survival horror games, used intelligently and in moderation, it puts a little bite of desperation into the proceedings, and forces the player to keep moving, instead of just vegetating in their comfort zone.

But why in the holy name of Miyamoto would you include unstoppable rampaging respawning armies in what is allegedly an all-ages exploration-based platformer? And I'm talking here, of course, about Lego Star Wars II.

I've got a post mortem of this game coming. Short version: it's great, but it bollockses up everything that was clever about the first one. High on my list of criticisms will be the fact that almost every screen of the damn game, and particularly the early levels, is filled with an endless onslaught of stormtroopers. Forget exploration, puzzle solving, and free-roaming goodness - you'll be too bogged down clearing white-helmeted nazis off your back every three seconds to enjoy any of those things. It's a mark of shame that the game only really becomes fun once you've unlocked the invincibility power-up.

Can I just put a fervent plea out there, to all those game designers who might be reading? Please, please don't add unlimited supplies of enemies to your game unless you have a really, really good reason for it. There's no shame in your game being too easy. There is shame in your game being stupidly annoying.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

In Space No One Can Hear You Whine

Big news.

1) CCP, creator of the MMOG Eve Online, have bought out pen-and-paper RPG maker White Wolf.

2) CCP have announced a forthcoming MMOG based on White Wolf's World of Darkness line of RPGs.

World of Darkness is the extremely successful collection of RPG titles which includes Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Known for their angst-ridden world setting and the endless infighting between the game's supernatural factions, they're one of the few systems or settings to ever give Dungeons & Dragons / D20 a run for its money.

I'd just like to say that I've had experience with the Camarilla, the international White Wolf live-play society, and as much as I loved World of Darkness in its time, the thought of playing a game simultaneously in a social setting with thousands of its fans fills me with nothing but the deepest terror and disgust.

Which is to say, if CCP can make something half as good as Eve Online, this game has the potential to be really, really big

Oh, and White Wolf will be doing an Eve Online collectible card game. Because, after all, up to date they've never produced anything but gold in the card gaming realm. (That's sarcasm folks. Play Jihad aka The Eternal Struggle. No, really, play it.)

Full story via Gamasutra here.


I just had the pleasure of seeing the first four episodes of Torchwood, the new Doctor Who spin-off. It sees Captain Jack Harkness heading up the Cardiff branch of the Torchwood Institute, an extra-governmental agency charged with neutralising alien threats and collecting and investigating alien technology.

The first four episodes are all extremely strong. The show's main danger was coming off as a cheap knockoff of Doctor Who, Angel, The X-Files, or all three at once, and it avoids this trap with ease, immediately demonstrating a strong and unique identity.

As anyone who saw Captain Jack's run on Who might expect, the show's got an in-your-face sexual vibe, which is something that's certainly new to the realm of TV sci-fi. The sexuality of both of the leads are questioned within the first two episodes - are they straight or not? - to which Harkness replies, "You 21st century folks and your categories!"

The lead characters of Jack (John Barrowman) and Gwen (Eve Myles) regularly steal the show, but they're backed by a great supporting cast. The show is well written and well directed, and moves from horror to romance to mystery with grace and aplomb. It's an inescapably British show, but packed with a Hollywood sense of action and timing.

In the realm of service to its parent show, it toes the line well. The first episode has an oblique reference to the TARDIS and the Doctor; continuity from the new Doctor Who is maintained, particularly with regards to the events of The Christmas Invasion and Doomsday, and episode four features a no-holds-barred Cyberman. And yet the theme and tone of the show are a thousand miles from that of Who, and you could happily jump in without having the slightest clue what a Time Lord is.

This isn't your typical sci-fi, and it's not going to be for everyone. But any weaknesses it has are more in the audience than in the show, and it's definitely worth a look to make your mind up for yourself.