Monday, July 31, 2006

Loco Roco Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I just finished the last level of Loco Roco for the PSP, and I'm pretty sure I'm done with it, so all you readers out there can get the benefit of a post-mortem - including that guy who found the site by googling You Wouldn't Like Me When I'm Ang Lee - you know who you are!

Loco Roco is another of those quirky Japanese games that we seem to be blessed with so many of lately. It used to be that stuff like this was jealously kept from us gaijin by the gaming powers that be, but the combination of a dawning region-free sensibility plus a shortage of competition in the handheld game market have led to more and more of this "only in Japan" craziness making the crossing and landing in our living rooms.

The premise is something a little like a cross between Katamari Damacy and Marble Madness, set in a 2D scrolling landscape. You take control of a Loco Roco, a little blob-like thing that speaks a Simlish-style gibberish. It transpires that the worlds of the Loco Rocos have been invaded by menacing black blobby-things called Mojas, and it's up to you to guide the Loco Rocos through a range of hallucinogenic landscapes, and help them to survive, explore, ... er... breed... and... um... sing. Breeding and singing are a big part of the game, seriously.

The worlds of the Loco Rocos consist of a fair range of scenery. The game starts in some fairly generic grassy hills, reminiscent of first levels of platformers everywhere, but quickly moves on to some significantly more original achievements. Jungles offer fast-flowing rivers that carry your Locos around, vines to swing on, and sticky leaf-layers to hang from like monkeys. The obligatory ice levels are filled with slippery floors and frozen chutes that let your Locos build up amazing speed. And several levels are set inside giant animals, where you must navigate from the creature's mouth, to its... er... lower exit, contending with giant hanging tonsils, spongy internal organs that happen to make fantastic trampolines, and the myriad dangers of peristalsis.

The landscapes have a fantastic organic quality, vibrating and shaking in time to your Loco Roco's motions with the qualities of authentic physics. The "inside the monster" levels are the best example of this, and are fantastic to play. Never have I been more convinced I was in the lower intestine of a ninety-foot penguin.

You don't get to directly control your Loco Roco. Rather than command the blobby protagonists to move, you instead get to tilt the entire world and roll them places. Holding the left shoulder button of the PSP tilts the world left, up to a maximum of about 60 degrees, and likewise the right shoulder tilts it right. This will usually induce your Loco Roco to roll "downhill", which is hopefully the way you want it to go. If this fails, your Loco Roco will usually get the hint anyway in a second or two and try and go in the direction you're indicating.

You can also press both shoulder buttons at the same time to shake the world (which basically makes your Loco Roco jump). Finally, you can press the circle button to split the Loco Roco up into a bunch of smaller versions of itself, to fit through tight gaps and solve other problems. In this state you're vulnerable to leaving some of yourself behind, but luckily you can quickly form up any Locos within sight and reach by holding down the circle button again.

Loco Roco sports some 40-ish levels. Finishing the levels is very easy - in fact, my PSP says I took about seven hours to do it, and that's including a couple of hours I spent messing around with the minigames and the Loco House (more of which later). Getting to the end of the game is never at any stage a real challenge, and feels more like an enjoyable sightseeing tour. It's almost ideal for children, first-time gamers, or those who like their platformers unthreatening (like myself).

However, for those who want to be challenged, the real meat of the game is in finding the bonus items. On each level, you are scored on how many Loco Roco you manage to find (for a perfect score of 20 per level), how many Loco House parts you find, and various other factors including time. Of note is that each level features three tiny golem-like creatures called Mui Mui, who are apparently friends of the Locos. Most of the game's unlockables (such as the minigames and the Loco Houses) are keyed off how many Mui Muis you've found in total, so there's a reasonable incentive to catch these things. You can, of course, repeat the levels as often as you like, and once a Mui Mui is found they stay found, no matter how often you re-try the stage.

I should note that the placement of the secrets themselves is fantastic - you have the clear sense that the level design is by a single mind. Placements of hidden items are fair, reasonably intuitive, and never ask you to, say, jump to what appears to be your doom in order to find them. You'll never be disappointed by the level layout - it's a minor masterpiece. When you discover a breakable wall or a hidden passageway, you never need to wonder whether to go through it - it'll always be worth your while, and if there's hazards along the hidden path, you'll find a handy teleporter-ish thing at the end so you don't have to jump them going back as well.

The art style is adorably simple and cute, making stong use of clean lines, bold primary colours, and a minimum of clutter in the backgrounds. It's distinctive, and perfectly suited to the feel and theme of the game.

But the real star of Loco Roco is the sound. Your Loco Roco is a chatty little creature, and will mutter to itself as it rolls along to inform you of its surroundings. The presence of dangerous spikes on the screen elicits a scared little whimper; nearby enemies cause your Loco to exclaim "Moja!", and when your Loco knows there's one of those little golem things nearby you'll hear a joyful cry of "Mui Mui!".

What's more, your Loco interacts with the soundtrack. Each level features one of a wide range of catchy tunes (think We Love Katamari), which are great all by themselves. What makes them better, however, is that the vocal track is actually sung by your Loco. Each of the different types of Loco Roco (six in all) has a different vocal styling, ranging from child's song, to opera, to the black Loco's deep soul funk voice. As you meander through the level, they'll sing the vocals to the level's music. Split into the multiple mini-locos, and suddenly your vocals are being performed by a choir. It's fantastic to hear, and adds a whole layer of charm and character to the game.

Loco Roco also features several mini-games. The most notable is the Loco House, where you can use "parts" you've unlocked throughout the main game to build a playground for the Locos. It works much in the style of The Incredible Machine, where you're creating elaborate setups to move the frustratingly inane Locos around the screen and collect further unlockables, which are often floating in midair or other such inaccessible locales. It's kind of fun, and the focus of much of the bonus content is on acquiring bigger houses and more parts. Unfortunately, the parts are so useful and the space to build in so small and uninteresting that it doesn't take long before you can do pretty much any task it sets you using the same three or four pieces. It would have been great if this aspect of the game had been fleshed out a lot more.

Myself, I'm not going back to find all the Mui Muis and so forth. Part of the reason is that I'm not really that enthused by what they unlock, but the main reason is jumping puzzles. Superman has Lex Luthor, the Batman has the Joker; I have jumping puzzles. I hates them, as anyone who read my experience with Mega Man: Powered Up already knows. And while you can complete each and every level with nary a tricky jump to be seen, the process of finding the secrets is littered with some of the most frustrating, annoying, maddening jumps I've ever seen in a platformer.

To their credit, they don't kill you if you stuff them up (mostly). But the game's jumping controls are more than a little squirrely, the tilt-based gameplay is disorienting, and squishy surfaces, tilting platforms, and a character that's prone to roll off anything smaller than your thumb go together in a combination that on the later levels will have you wanting to throw your PSP at the wall.

This is a great game; it's original, it's fun, it's charming, and it's fantastic that things like this are being released. But you'll be charged the full premium price for it, and completing the levels won't take you very long at all, so if you're going to buy it, just be sure that you're happy with getting a quality experience instead of an epically long one, or be ready to face some fiendish jumping madness.

The Ship

[Computer Gaming]

Because I was telling some friends about it the other day, and they read my blog, here's a link to a full review of The Ship, a Source-engine first person stealth murder mystery Sims game. It sounds awesome, and I'll definitely have to try it the next time I let Steam anywhere near my computer (currently scheduled for approximately when hell freezes over).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

PSP Games That Don't Suck

[Computer Gaming]

A few days I ago I posted about my disappointment in the US and Australian PSP Greatest Hits collections. It was fairly negative in tone, so I thought I'd balance it out with a list of some games that have made it to the PSP which were really quite good, actually.

* Loco Roco
I've just started playing this yesterday, and it's a bunch of fun. A quirky Japanese game that we're lucky made it across the Pacific, it's something like a cross between Katamari Damacy and Marble Madness done as a 2D platformer. You guide a round singing blob called a Loco Roco through a hallucinogen-induced landscape, eating things. Your Loco Roco mutters cutely to itself when danger or bonus items are near, and can split into several smaller Loco Rocos to navigate tight spots, or when it needs a whole chorus of voices to bust out a particularly cute song. Wierd but excellent. (If you're in Australia there's a free demo available for PSP download from the Oz PSP site.)

* Metal Gear Acid
I wasn't entirely kind to Solid Snake's first PSP outing when I posted my post-mortem of it, but it has to be said that it's still one of the most polished and original titles available on the system. Considering the relative dearth of quality gaming for the PSP, there's a lot to be said for a turn-based card-battling stealth action game with a distinctive Metal Gear flavour. You could do worse.

* Wipeout Pure
A good contender for the greatest Wipeout game ever, Wipeout Pure pretty much takes the strongest elements from the popular European hovership racing franchise and mixes them together to create, for my money, the most worthwhile PSP game available in Australia on launch day. Not only is the core game addictive, simple, and well designed, but it was followed by possibly the strongest online support of any PSP title yet, with a metric buttload of new courses, ships, skins, and music being offered for free download from the official PSP sites. High speeds, trance music and missiles combine for a game that should be on the shelf of any PSP owner.

* Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix
Why own a PS2 when you can have virtually the entirety of THUG 2 ported wholesale to your PSP without losing the graphics, levels, tight controls or gameplay? And what's more, you get new levels drawing from the Tony Hawk franchise history, and it's portable. A fantastic technical and design achievement and one of the two standout titles in demonstrating the platform's potential.

* Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories
If Tony Hawk was impressive on the PSP, GTA took it a step further with an original full-length GTA game featuring graphics as good or better than the early PS2 entries in the franchise. Liberty City Stories operates as a direct prequel to GTA III, and is set in largely the same levels, but brings with it the developments and improvements in gameplay from some of the later games in the series, including costume changes, asset properties, motorbikes, and a whole swag of new side jobs ranging from trash collector to car salesman. Head and shoulders the best single game made for the PSP.

* Burnout Legends
Not to be confused with its appalling port to the DS, the PSP Burnout Legends successfully brings everything that makes Burnout good to a handheld console, including high speeds, spectacular crashes, great-looking scenery, tight controls, hundreds of unlockable cars, and satisfying multi-car takedowns. The popular Crashbreaker mode unfortunately suffers from the PSP being able to draw less cars on screen than its console cousin, but Legends makes up for it by bringing back the long absent Pursuit mode, which compliments an extensive list of other gameplay features that are dead-on perfect. It's genuinely a hard choice to choose between buying this, or Burnout: Revenge for the PS2 - so I got both. 8-)

* Lumines
Easily the puzzle game of choice for the PSP, and also one of the best puzzle games of the last two years, alongside Meteos for the DS. Lumines challenges you to arrange falling blocks that contain four squares in combinations of two colours, so as to form 2 x 2 or larger blocks of a single colour, which clear when a bar that drifts across the screen touches them. It's a simple premise that quickly grows complex when the blocks fall at different speeds, the speed of the bar changes, and the playfield grows cluttered. It's very close in a lot of ways to Tetris, and yet it remains fresh and exciting. The soundtrack is excellent too - it's very true to call Lumines a music-themed game, as the aural score mutates and changes to reflect your performance and progress.

Now, that's only six games. I should say I do have Tokobot, Tales of Eternia and Popolocrois sitting on my shelf, and there's every indication I'm going to enjoy them, but I haven't played them yet. Assuming I like them all, that brings us up to a total of 9. It's still not a good record of games for the PSP, when I could easily name twice that number for the DS, but at least if you've already made your handheld purchase and are casting around for something to do with it, you might get some inspiration that doesn't involve bricks or pawn shops. Good luck!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

First Issues - July

[Now Experiencing] [Comics]

Some first issues of comics that have come out in the last couple of weeks which you'd be doing yourself a favour to check out.

The Escapists #1 (Dark Horse)
Writer: Brian K Vaughan
Artists: Philip Bond, Eduardo Barreto
These days anything by Brian Vaughan is worth checking out - you may be familiar with his fantastic work on Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina. But The Escapists still manages to be something special. Based on and growing out of the Michael Chabon novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, the story follows the adventures of Max Roth as he discovers his father's hidden collection of memorabilia from the (fictional) superhero The Escapist, and uses his inheritance to buy the rights to the once glorious character and resurrect it as an indie comic franchise. It's fantastically told, and the art doesn't once let the narrative down. Definitely one of the best single issues I've read for a long time, and well worth your time.

Justice League of America #0 (DC)
Writer: Brad Meltzer
Art: Various - a who's who of DC Artists including everyone from George Perez to Jim Lee
The post Infinite Crisis re-launch of the JLA has arrived, and if this issue #0 is anything to go by it may well one of the League's greatest eras. This first issue delivers a moving character story delving into the relationship between Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the League, which stands alone as a fantastic single issue. It's steeped in JLA and DC Universe continuity, so if you've never been to Donna Troy's wedding or been on hand to watch Batman punch Guy Gardner in the face you might not get the full effect, but if you've enjoyed any past incarnation of the Justice League you're likely to be delighted with its new direction.

The All-New Atom #1 (DC)
Writer: Gail Simone (from an idea by Grant Morrison)
Art: John Byrne & Trevor Scott
Since the original Silver Age Atom, Ray Palmer, vanished in the events following Identity Crisis, the role of "size changing scientist" has been undermanned in the DC Universe. The new series of the Atom aims to change that. Ryan Choi is an Asian-American child prodigy who's filling Palmer's old teaching job at Ivy University. But when he finds mysterious hidden messages from Palmer written on the heads of needles, and discovers the Atom's shrinking belt hidden in Palmer's old apartment, he finds he may be replacing Ray as more than just a teacher. He's soon embroiled in a battle against a subatomic civilization bent on conquest, while simultaneously juggling romance, employment, and the task of fitting in in a new environment. What makes this incarnation of the Atom a joy to read is the team dynamic - Ryan is aided and abetted on his adventures by a cadre of eccentric academics and lecturers who see the Atom both as an adventure in science and as a way to recapture their youth. Grant Morrison's energetic ideas shine through strongly, but are wisely tempered by Gail Simone's ability to write a coherent story with characterisation and pacing. All in all it makes for a promising re-start for a character that's previously never really interested me.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Video Game Trivia

[News] [Personal] [Events] [Computer Gaming]

If you're in Canberra - tonight (Friday), at the Holy Grail in Civic, starting at 8 pm, there's apparently a video game trivia night. Myself and some others will be competing. Fun for all the family, providing that all your family are hardcore gamers.

Just to whet your appetite, here's a few questions I've whipped up myself, which I can only assume will be harder than those posed at the trivia night. Yes, you could google the answers, but that would make you a Bad Person (TM).

1) Who is the mayor of Metro City?

2) From Double Dragon, name both the heroes (either of their two alternative names will do), and also the girlfriend who was kidnapped.

3) In Mortal Kombat II, which character's friendship move involved presenting the opponent with an autographed photo?

4) In the Wing Commander series, what was Maniac's real name?

5) In Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, San Andreas, and Liberty City Stories, what happens when you shoot at the moon with a sniper rifle?

6) What song plays over the opening cinematic of Fallout? (And for bonus points, who provides the voice-over for this scene?)

7) Tex Murphy: Overseer is the fifth and final installment in a series that features which four other games?

8) What does SCUMM stand for?

9) Who was the 7th Guest? (name required)

10) What numerical designation did Guilty Spark possess?

Thanks for playing!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

When Christians Attack

[Web Stuff] [Religion]

I'm not Christian. Or, really, an adherent of any organised religion. But those kooky God-botherers sure can be good people from time to time. In fact, the majority of them are fine, open-minded, intelligent, rational people.

But sometimes they go bad. In pretty much the same way tuna goes bad - by jumping on the internet and printing tracts.* And boy howdy, is that funny.

(* Tuna may not always do this. It depends whether the tuna has access to the internet.)

For those who are able to get a good laugh out of seeing what happens when zealotry and bigotry have kinky sex and make malformed illegitimate babies, you'll be amused by the following links, to which I was clued in by Julia at Go Camel.

* On Dungeons & Dragons: In which we learn that your GM is preparing you for indoctrination into a coven of witches.

* On Wicca: In which we learn that Satan's hoofprint is firmly stamped on modern wicca. Possibly in hot wax.

* On Evolution: In which we learn what the Bible has to say about straw men (hint: it loves them), and that atoms are held together mostly by the power of Christ.

* On Witchcraft: In which Harry Potter teaches children the black arts, but a passing preacher saves the day through a quick exorcism.

* On Vampires: Apparently more numerous than originally believed.

* On Rock Music: In which modern music is a druidic conspiracy to cast spells at us within our very homes.

Comedy gold, people. Honestly, you can't make this stuff up. I'll stress again that I'm not attacking Christianity as practised by the vast majority of fairly level headed people, just this one guy and the authors and readers of his whacky website. Now I just have to sit back and wait for the hate mail to pour in. 8-)

Continuum 2006

[News] [Personal] [Conventions]

As I'm currently living the fine life of being "without a job" (by choice), but am not in any way short of precious cash, I've decided that there's absolutely no good reason whatsoever to not decide at the last minute to go to Continuum 2006, in Melbourne in about a week's time.

Continuum is running at the Victoria Hotel in Melbourne from Friday 4 August to Sunday 6 August. Last year's Continuum, featuring Neil Gaiman, got about 500 people, so this year is kind of a reaction against that - it looks like a fairly small con, with no international guests that I'm aware of. But there will be lots of Shaun Tan, and his new book The Arrival (which looks excellent).

I'm flying into Melbourne Thursday morning and flying out Monday lunch-ish. I look forward to seeing those Melbournites who I know plus anyone else of my acquaintance that's in town for the con. Huzzah!

Wednesday, July 26, 2006


[Site News]

I'm reasonably certain there's no law against blogging five times in one day.

A recent Google search for "Dust Forms Words" has yielded interesting results.

1) Of all results returned (and they all related to this blog), the blog itself is apparently the least likely place to find out about "Dust Forms Words", ranking last (on page three of the results). Thankfully, someone in California knows better, and has been reaching my page by Googling Hi, whoever you are! You don't need the "www" - it works fine without. In fact, you don't even need to Google it - you can just type it into the address bar! (And who says Dust Forms Words isn't educational?)

2) All manner of people have added me to their blogrolls, so a big hello and thanks in particular to Unfettered Blather, The Gaming Hobo, The Angriest, and Mining For Fish. Also thanks to Corvus at Man Bytes Blog and Josh at Cathode Tan, whose respective analysis of my posts carries a lot more weight with Google than the posts themselves, apparently. 8-)

Am I on your blogroll yet? I should be, dagnabbit! Or at least subscribe to my LJ feed or newsfeed.

PSP Greatest Misses

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Gamasutra has an article confirming the North American lineup for the forthcoming PSP Greatest Hits catalogue, which plans to re-release the most successful PSP games to date for purchase in a new, cheaper ($20 US) format (much like the similar platinum-boxed collection for the PlayStation 2).

The lineup says pretty much everything there is to say about the current PSP game selection. I've managed to haul myself as far as Gamespot to get some support on the titles I haven't played, but I'm too lazy to find other sources. In any case, as far as the PSP launch titles went Gamespot were more or less on target compared to my own opinions, so that should do well enough.

* Ape Escape: On the Loose
I haven't played this one, but Gamespot seemed to think it was decent but unremarkable.

* ATV Offroad Fury: Blazin' Trails
Again, by all accounts, nothing special.

* Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee
It's a frikkin' golf game. What more do you need to know?

* Twisted Metal: Head On
This one apparently wasn't too bad - Gamespot thought 8.3, which puts it pretty much in their top bracket of titles from the launch period (with the exception of the almost fawning devotion they paid to Lumines).

* Wipeout Pure
An excellent game that I thoroughly enjoyed, and a great return to form for the Wipeout franchise (even if the soundtrack didn't feature any Chemical Brothers this time).

* Lumines
Quality puzzle action. As with many puzzle games, it feels like a bit of an insult to be expected to pay a premium price for it, but that having been said, it's up there with Meteos as one of the best Tetris-oids of the past five years. Gamespot really orgasmed over it - I'm not sure I'd go quite that far but it certainly is one of the better PSP titles on my shelf.

* Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition
I learned that I wasn't a fan of Midnight Club when I played the PS2 games, so I never investigated its PSP outing. Gamespot tells me it's more of the same.

* Star Wars Battlefront II
A truly putrid offering. The PS2 Battlefront II wasn't even as good as the original Battlefront, and the PSP version is an order of magnitude worse again. Even the easy wireless multiplayer doesn't compensate for hideous controls, a view distance of about three feet, and the "armies" you're taking on being limited to about three soldiers on-screen at any given time. I can't recommend highly enough that you avoid this game.

* Tony Hawk's Underground 2 Remix
A fantastic port of the THUG series to a handheld format, packing almost the entire PS2 experience onto a UMD while maintaining the same tight controls, great level design, and addictive gameplay. Highly recommended.

* Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade
The success of this game is mostly due to the complete absence of other RPG-esque titles at the PSP's launch. It's an uninspiring and unsatisfying Diablo-type romp that's inoffensive if you don't have anything better on hand to play (which no-one did, when the PSP launched). But hardly a classic. Gamespot goes one better to suggest that "some legends are untold for a reason", but that may be a bit harsh.

From this list, we see:
I've played 5 out of 10 games (50%).
8 out of 10 games (80%) are extensions of console franchises, and of those, 3 out of 10 (30%) were more or less straight console ports of existing games.
4 out of 10 games (40%) scored higher than 8 on Gamespot. 1 out of 10 scored a 9 or higher (Lumines). And this was mostly in an era where Gamespot would give an 8 to anything even remotely fun. (They seem to be a bit harsher recently.)
0 out of 10 games (0%) are good enough to justify the purchase of a PSP. (Subjective opinion.)

That's pretty sad for a greatest hits collection.

Apparently Europe/Australia has a different Greatest Hits lineup. Ours are selling for about $50 AUD under the same "Platinum" brand as the PlayStation 2, and we're getting:

* Wipeout Pure
* Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition
* Everybody's Golf
* Pursuit Force
* Ridge Racer
* WFC World Rally Championship
* Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
* Medievil: Resurrection
* F1 Grand Prix

And that's even sadder than the US collection. That's what, 6 out of 9 (66.6%) driving games, and of the remaining three one is a sports title. I'm not sure whether that reflects worse on the PSP or on Australia. Admittedly, probably what's driving this list is the different selection of launch titles we got compared to the US. Australia enjoyed Wipeout Pure and Pursuit Force long before America got wind of them, and probably some of those other titles were Euro-first productions. Plus I'm fairly sure that Europe/Australia are more Harry Potter crazy, per-capita, than America, by a fair margin.

Still, none of that excuses anyone paying money for Medievil: Resurrection. Ick. If this is the best the PSP can offer, I'm going to be finding it harder and harder to justify my launch-day outlay of $600 on my shiny black portable friend.

UPDATE: This post now has a follow-up, "PSP Games That Don't Suck". Check it out.

Wherefore Art Thou, Ouendan?

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Gamespot has news of the impending English-language release of a rhythm-based DS game called Elite Beat Agents. This is, of course, the western title for the quirky Japanese outing called Ossu! Tatake! Ouendan! (trans. Ready, Set, Let's Cheer!) which all manner of places have been saying very nice things about. (Yes, despite the premise.)

Changes are apparently afoot, however. Instead of leading a trio of male cheerleaders through an offbeat and occasionally incomprehensible plotline involving dastardly deeds, disasters, and monkeys, wherein you use the awesome power of dance routines and cheerleading to right wrongs and uphold truth, justice and the Japanese way, we gaijin are apparently in for somewhat tamer fare.

The cheerleaders are gone, replaced by "Elite Beat Agents", who seem to be something like funk dancing FBI agents. They'll be tackling problems that actually make sense to a western audience. They'll still be employing dance routines in their work, but their feet won't be flashing to the gaudy yet addictive tones of J-Pop - no, they'll be busting out to a bevy of licensed American music. And there's no monkeys anywhere in sight.

In short, the game has been brutally gutted. Well, the gameplay's still there, and I hear that was good. But... gutted.


I guess this is one more reason to get a basic reading comprehension in Japanese and cut loose on the import scene. If anyone wants me, I'll be practicing looking at puppies and pronouncing them cute (which I hear is a key social skill in the land of the rising sun).

Stats Ahoy!

[Site News]

A stat counter has been added to the bottom of my sidebar. Because it's using code, and so forth, there's always the chance that this page will now have bugs for some people. If you're experiencing any new difficulties viewing this site, leave me a comment and I'll.... probably ignore you, because I hate debugging HTML and Java. But at least I'll know.

The Dead Zone

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

We're in that lull between E3 and the Tokyo Game Show, and it's so very hard to find anything worth talking about in the world of video games. Australia still doesn't have Kingdom Hearts 2, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence or Final Fantasy XII out for purchase, and there's not a lot of imminent releases I'm particularly excited about until the Wii launches.

I'm still playing Animal Crossing: Wild World on and off; I've got 11 sudokus left to solve in Brain Training, and I've started the original GBA Advance Wars, which is quite good for a turn-based strategy but heir to many of the same frustrations that typically prevent me ever getting more than three quarters of the way through one (although I do intend to go back and play some more Disgaea some day). I'm also technically still playing GTA: Liberty City Stories, but I think I've reached that burnout that I get with GTA when I hit the last few missions and they're annoying and frustrating and you have to do a really annoying trip from your safehouse just to reach the guy who starts the level. And I suspect I've played all the Guitar Hero that I'm going to play outside of demonstrating it at parties, so I might do a post-mortem on that, maybe.

Well, that fulfils my need to make a post today. Maybe inspiration will strike later and I'll blog something with some substance. Maybe.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

I'm Being Pirated!

[Site News]

Well, THAT was a surprise. I'm apparently being syndicated to some site called "The Australian Index". I've no real problem with that, because they at least link to The Dust Forms Words, but it would have been nice of them to ask. If I was a scary corporate type, I'd call it piracy. Meh. I suppose if I didn't like it I could turn off my Atom/XML feed but then all you LJ people would stop reading me.

Hey, if by chance you're reading me from the Australian Index, leave me a comment, so I can tell if I'm at least getting more coverage out of this.

By the way, I found this while searching for the words "Yassai Mossai" on behalf of Matt over at Internal Collapse. Is anyone able to help him in his search for an MP3 of Yassai Mossai from the Japanese show Kiserazu Cat's Eye? (Matt, that site's syndicating you too, by the way. Just thought you'd want to know.)

UPDATE: They're also pirating Julia at Go Camel and Gillian at Even In A Little Thing, in case either of you are reading. I'm sure the other ACT-ites from my sidebar are even now in their sneaky little crosshairs.

UPDATE 2: They're ALSO syndicating Grant at The Angriest, Tama's E-learning Blog and her Ponderance blog, and Shane at Smoke and Mirrors. I -know- that at least some of those people don't read Dust Forms Words, so if you know them could you pass it on, in case they want to be outraged? Plus there may be other people who I don't recognise the e-handles of.

UPDATE 3: They also specifically linked to my last post in the crusade against the OFLC (join us, we have a uniform!*). So whoever runs the Index is actually reading the blog. I'm not sure whether that makes me feel better about the whole thing or not.

* NOTE: We don't actually have a uniform - but that would be cool; someone should design one.

5 Most Unsatisfying Game Endings of All Time

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

The five most unsatisfying computer game endings of all time. And by "five most unsatisfying", I mean the five that popped into my head as I wrote this post. And by "of all time", I mean as far as I'm concerned, right now, without having to think too hard.

5) Final Fantasy VIII
4) Zone of the Enders (although the sequel to some extent made up for it)
3) Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
2) Halo 2

And coming in at number 1... Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. Just finished it for the second time right now, and it's just as horrible a thing to do to the player as it was back when it first came out (which is when I first finished it). A puzzle as frustrating and poorly designed as the final one of that game deserves something better by way of reward. Aargh! It makes it all the worse by comparison to how nice the final puzzles and ending of Monkey Island 1 were.

I probably should do a serious post about game endings that were good, some day. There's so many - Vagrant Story, Under A Killing Moon, Toejam and Earl and Fallout all come instantly to mind.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

I'm So There

[News] [Theatre] [Film]

Evil Dead: The Musical, a stage musical adaptation of the first of Sam Raimi's cult horror flicks, opening in New York in October. News courtesy of Empire.

Initial reports suggest it's actually a prety good show, with songs including "Cabin In The Woods" and "What The F*** Was That?". This had better find its way down under, or I'll be getting out my boomstick.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Assorted Film News

[News] [Film]

The lack of quality film makes me want to fill the void in my soul by writing about upcoming movies. Here's some bits and pieces.

* Heath Ledger is tapped to play the Joker in the next Batman film. Why? For the love of Bob Kane, why? (link)

* The TMNT trailer is out. No one particularly seems to care - especially IMDB, who as far as I can tell don't even have a listing for this movie. (link)

* Pretty much against all expectations, Clerks II: Passion of the Clerks is getting mostly good reviews. Huh. I guess it's true what they say about stopped clocks. On the other hand, I also heard that Kevin Smith had his most vocal critics banned from preview screenings, so maybe this really isn't all that representative. On a side note, never have I seen so many reviews spontaneously choose to use the word "scabrous" at once. (link)

* Lady In The Water (latest film from M Knight Shyamalan) looks to be a lot more in the line of the hideous Signs than the excellent The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and The Village. Really bad reviews ahoy. (link)

* We will be treated to the wonder and glory of Aliens v Predator 2, which has begun shooting. This time the aliens had better win, dagnabbit. Now, if this can get a sequel, where's my Freddy v Jason rematch? (link)

* Among the many things we'll see in the Halo movie when it finally breaks the surface will NOT be Master Chief's face. The green-suited hero will remain helmeted for precisely 100% of the movie. There's a lot of cries that the movie will therefore be inherently crap. I'm prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt up until I actually see the movie, and then talk about why it was a stupid move. (link)

* And Richard Linklater's rotoscoped adaptation of A Scanner Darkly looks to be doing a festival tour down here in Australia, so things don't look good for an official Australian cinema release in the near future. Which is a shame, because most of the bad reviews seem to be picking on the Phillip Dick novel which forms the source for the movie, rather than having anything bad to say about the adaptation. I love the novel to bits, so I remain hyped for the screen version. (link to reviews - my source for the release news is AJ, and I have no idea where he got it from)

That's all. Thanks for reading.

PSP - Dazed and Confused

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Gamasutra has tipped me off to a recent interview between United Press International and Peter Dille, Sony's Vice President of Marketing, regarding the future of the PSP. Now, I don't know exactly what pulling power the VP of Marketing has at Sony, or how much he's in the loop on Sony's directions in handheld development, but I have to say on the basis of this interview I'm a little worried for the future of my shiny black portable friend.

Sony seems directionless and reactive in discussing the plans for the PSP's future. (Well, these days you can replace "plans for the PSP's future" with pretty much any other topic you care to name, but still.)

Support for UMD movie format declining? The focus of UMDs will change to "target" the PSP-buying demographic. Which is to say, we're no longer going to see releases of romantic comedies for a device owned largely by teen to thirty-something males. I suppose that's better than nothing, but it still begs the whole question of why I'd buy any UMDs at all when I already own the movie on DVD, have no particular compulsion to watch it on a tiny, tiny screen, and could in any case burn it to a digital format if I really absolutely had to view it on the PSP.

It's particularly telling that when asked about the lack of original and quality titles on the PSP a year after launch, Dille's response doesn't mention a single title that isn't a port from a console, or a franchise extension from a console, with the exception of Loco Roco. (And most of the games he cites are actually pretty awful, too, Grand Theft Auto excepted.) He's effectively saying that Sony is going to continue to offer original PSP content by recycling mainstream console junk and attempting to cram it onto tiny, tiny UMDs. Have Sony learned nothing from Nintendo's success in the handheld market?

I think this is where it's really hurting Sony to not have any first party game development. Nintendo, of course, has a quality stable of titles and designers that it can trot out to show off any new system. Microsoft has Bungie and Rare under their wing. Sony hasn't really needed anything of this sort till now, because it's never really innovated - it's just done what everyone else was doing, but better and cheaper. Now that it's really the first to deliver a semi-credible portable media centre targeted at a mature market, it's suffering because no developer wants to be the first to stick their neck out and make something that really takes advantage of the PSP (and therefore will be difficult to port to the DS or PS2).

How will the PSP compete with the DS (UPI asks)? Well, Sony are going to be pushing its multimedia capacities. That's right, the same multimedia capacities that they've progressively neutered with each firmware release. The same multimedia capacities that require you to reformat your video into an exclusive format before you can watch it. The same capacities that you have to shell out a good $100AUD for a decent memory stick before you can use them. Good plan, Sony.

It goes on in this vein. About the only ray of hope is that the PSOne emulation is still on track for later this year, although of course it too will require the chunky expensive memory stick and the ability to access the internet.

Here's an idea, Sony. Three simple steps to get the PSP back on track.

1) Decide whether it's a game device with multimedia benefits, or a multimedia centre that just happens to play games, and deliver the marketing and support to sell it that way. Stop trying to ride two horses at once.
2) Spend the money, threaten the families of developers, do whatever it takes to get unique quality content available on the PSP. It has some decent titles, but it's yet to find a killer app in a year when the DS is churning them out every two months.
3) The consumer is not your enemy. When I'm scared to download your latest firmware for fear that it will make my PSP worse, something is wrong. The potential damage done by homebrew and/or piracy is as nothing next to the loss of consumer trust and confidence. Make your firmware updates functional, friendly, and well justified.

I love my little Sony portable, and I really hope that the big bad executives at Sony don't let it die on the vine.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Dawn Of An Age

[Personal] [Computer Gaming]

When I was (I think) eight, my parents bought me a birthday present. It was a mostly black cardboard box, about A4 size and a couple of inches thick. At the top of the box were printed the words "Ultima Trilogy - I * II * III". In the middle were three little mini-pictures, showing such dramatic scenes as an armoured man on a horse fighting a giant dragon-thing. The back of the box suggested that within the box's magic confines I would find software which was compatible with my Apple IIe personal computer.

Huh, I thought. This looks okay. A guy fighting a dragon thing - I don't think I have any games like that. Maybe it'll be as good as Robotron, or possibly even Karateka!

I opened the box, on the spot (as you do), and perused the contents. Right at the top was the first find - a detailed map of a fantasy continent. No - not one map - three! That's right - this wasn't just one game, it was three separate installments, and they were all complex enough to warrant their own map.

But these weren't just any maps. They were covered with wierd symbols, and there wasn't a word of English to be seen anywhere on them. That's right - these maps were in CODE! And just looking at them, I had the feeling I could crack that code, with a little effort. Look, right there, there was a six-letter word, and knowing the title of the game, I could hazard a fair guess that it would translate to "Ultima".

Under the maps came the next treasure - the instruction manual. And this wasn't just some little pamphlet - no sir! It was about as thick as a Fighting Fantasy Gamebook (my passion of the time), clocking a good hundred and something pages easily. It was bound in a sort of fairly durable soft-cardboard, and it was decorated on the front with another picture of some guy fighting evil, rendered in simple atmospheric lines reminiscent of aged ink.

Within the manual, I found another break with the tradition of every video game I'd acquired thus far. The instructions were completely bare of dry directions like "Press Up to move Up", and instead read like a letter to the player, inviting the player to take up arms to save the world of Britannia, and leading slowly into the flavour and atmosphere of the game. More of the ink line-drawings littered the pages, and hidden among the instructions were hints as to what challenges I might face as I played the games. Time travel! Spaceships! Pirates! This game had it all!

I think the crowning achievement was discovering that the very back of the manual contained not just the complete spell list for Ultima III, but also the actual words of the spell! That's right! From this marvellous tome I remember to this day that uttering the words manji mular levi mittar nopsum alum cavi are crucial to the conjuration of a magic missile!

Ultima had me hooked. I played those three games fairly nonstop for the next two years. Ultima III ultimately proved to have a slighty extreme difficulty for someone of my young age, and Ultima II was riddled with bugs that unfortunately cut my experience short (I lost my saved game not once but twice, and had to abort a third game when random pieces of the scenery began haphazardly detachinig themselves and attacking me for crippling damage, effectively barring me from visiting towns and acquiring much-needed food.) But I played Ultima I right to its exciting conclusion, and it remains a nostalgic favourite to this very day.

And that, friends, is the moment I knew I was going to be playing video games for as long as people were making them.

This long rambling post is my response to this month's Blogs of the Round Table, which Corvus has decreed will be on the subject of "It Was Great When It All Began". What were the defining moments in YOUR gaming life?

Brain Training Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

Gaming has a fine tradition of epic battles against disembodied heads. A hidden secret at the end of Doom II allowed players to open fire on the severed head of John Romero. Gamers reaching the end of Star Fox 64 (Lylat Wars) went literally head to head with the giant floating cranium of Andross. And who could forget entering the awesome vector-graphic world of the Strong Bad Zone? ("Your Head A Splode!")

So when the geniuses at Nintendo met the esteemed Doctor Ryuta Kawashima, and discovered that he was, in fact, a polygon-rendered floating head, it was only natural to make him the star of his own videogame.

The name of said game is Brain Training: How Old Is Your Brain? (Released in the US as Brain Age: Train Your Brain In Minutes A Day) It's not to be confused with the similarly titled (but inferior) Big Brain Academy, released in Australia about the same time, presumably to capitalise on Brain Training's expected success.

For those who haven't had the pleasure, or confusion, of seeing this little game yet, it's not really too hard to describe. The game features Kawashima's floating head, exhorting you to perform simple mathematical, spatial, and reading challenges, and promising that following his instructions will bring back your brain's lost youth.

That's really as simple as it is. You turn the DS sideways (holding it like a book), and use the stylus to write down the answers to speed arithmetic, counting games, and so forth. The game mixes it up by sometimes allowing you to answer verbally through the DS microphone. And if you play with several people using the same card, you can compare your results against each other with occasionally amusing results.

Well, I've been playing it for 20 days now, and the game tells me I've experienced all the content there is to experience - "but you can still keep training!" Did I return my brain's lost youth? I don't know. On day one, the game estimated my Brain Age as 20, which is as low as it can measure to (low is good), and it hasn't budged since. What's more, on most of the puzzles I'm routinely getting the highest score or highest bracket possible, even on the "hard" setting. Is it possible I'm too intelligent? Or is it that this software just wasn't designed for people with gaming legacy skills?

It was kind of fun and all, but I have to say, on the basis of the software's main function, it wasn't remotely worth whatever I paid for it. (I forget what I paid, but there's a strong chance it was in the $50AUD "budget" range rather than the $80-$90 premium category.) I was stretching a bit to keep playing it for the 20 days, and those aren't 20 days of heavy gaming. Much like Animal Crossing, Brain Training effectively limits your play to under a half-hour per day (actually, more like fifteen minutes a day, at most). You can replay the day's "training exercises", but... why would you? They're not inherently fun, and the game only takes account of your first score per exercise per day.

However, there is a silver lining. The game also comes packed with some 120-ish stylus-driven Sudoku puzzles, and a really fairly good interface for solving them with. You can even play them with a "cheat mode" that warns you if you start to go wrong (just in case you're determined to not extract any longevity from this title). The sudokus have kept me going a lot longer than the training, and I suspect I'll be at them a little while longer still.

Is this game worth your time? If you're a regular gamer, no. Spend your money on Mario Kart, Meteos, or the upcoming Phantom Hourglass. If you're a casual gamer, though, just beginning to discover the magic of the DS, it might be worth your time. If you're really into solving sudokus. But I'd still suggest your money might be better spent on Animal Crossing: Wild World.

The Air Up There

[News] [Computer Gaming]

In brief: Gamasutra advises that Ken Kutaragi will be delivering the Sony keynote at the 2006 Tokyo Game Show (TGS). The title of the speech will be "The Next-Generation As Created By the PlayStation 3".

Hubris - that's the scientific name for those fluffy clouds in the upper atmosphere, right?

At least they've actually begun manufacturing the darn consoles. (Which I guess means it's too late for them to change their minds about the controller, the Blu-Ray drive, and whatever they ended up going with in terms of digital rights management.)


[News] [Computer Gaming]

Unsubstantiated fanboy rumourmongering ahoy! It seems that I'm not the only one speculating that this year's changes in console fortunes might induce Square-Enix to jump ship on Sony like a seagoing ninja beset by pirates.

According to this completely untrustworthy link, unnamed people with no particular credibility may or may not be hypothesising that Square-Enix may be thinking about possibly releasing Dragon Quest IX as a Wii exclusive. Wow, that's pretty authoritative! It's the next best thing to actual facts!

For those who aren't necessarily across the Japanese gaming scene, Dragon Quest is a huge-seller for Squeenix in Japan - if I recall correctly, it boasts Japanese sales comparable to the Final Fantasy series (also by Square), which, trust me, is a LOT of sales. In past years it's pretty much been a PlayStation-exclusive brand, and we've only recently seen the DQ games starting to come out in the West, but if Squeenix moves this blockbuster franchise exclusively to Nintendo's unfortunately-named next-generation magic bullet, it's a huge coup for Nintendo.

Thanks to The Angriest for tipping me off to the rumour, and thanks to unscrupulous gaming sites for running the story without any particular evidence or substantiation. Hey, I'm a blog - journalistic integrity is something that happens to other people.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Robots in Disguise, Friendly Neighbourhood Webslingers, and Killing Snoop Dogg

[News] [Film] [Computer Gaming]

Assorted news I haven't blogged about yet, and comments.

* Transformers: The Movie (Live Action): I just saw the teaser trailer for this, and it looks like a fantastically bad joke. As much as I love those big transforming robots, it's very hard to see the words "Transformers: A Michael Bay Film" appear on screen without laughing. This would be hard enough to do right with a competent director in charge, let alone Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Harbour). He could surprise me, but my prediction is even the hardcore fans will have a tough time swallowing this.

* Spider-Man 3: Again, just saw the trailer. I'm cautiously optimistic. It looks like it captures the same magic as the first two installments. Raimi's still at the head, Maguire and Dunst are still on board, and if the trailer's any indication it looks like they might actually be delivering a decent story based around Spidey's parastic ex-costume, Venom. Plus Sandman looks great (the Marvel thug version, of course, not either of the DC ones) and I hear we'll be seeing Hobgoblin, although I couldn't spot him in the trailer.
UPDATE: Upon rewatching the trailer, no, there's plenty of Hobgoblin there, both in and out of costume - it's just that it's pretty dark and you don't really get to see what he looks like.

* Def Jam 3: Somehow last year I missed the news that there'll be a third console installment of the Def Jam brawling series. The last outing, Fight for NY, was disarmingly good, pretty much against all expectations, and I know myself and my gaming crowd will be hanging out for another chance to lay the smack down on such hip-hop celebrities as Snoop Dogg and Ludacris. The biggest possibility for things to go wrong is if Electronic Arts directs the focus towards the music and the graphics and let the great gameplay side, but as we all know, EA are known for being cutting-edge artists who would never EVER emphasise style over substance, so naturally we don't need to worry. Right?

Alright, that's got me posting again, let's see if I can get back into the swing of things.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Not Dead, Just Sleeping

[News] [Personal] [Site News]

Hi! The site's not dead; I've just had a lot of stuff going on elsewhere. I hope to get back to a normal posting schedule fairly soon.

Obviously I missed the Carnival of Gamers (see last post). I'll try for the next one.

By the way, I am changing jobs. As a result, anyone who routinely uses my work email to contact me needs to know that I am not reading or answering that address and you can contact me at my home address or via this blog.