Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Castle Crashers

It's been a couple of months since the thing came out and I got officially "over it" about two weeks ago but I should say a couple of words about the excellence of Castle Crashers.

This is probably only of interest to those XBox 360 owners who don't pay attention to what's available on Live Arcade. Those who read the occasional feed have probably, by now, already learned about Castle Crashers, downloaded it, played it, loved it, and put it out to pasture. But if by chance you haven't already spent time with the thing, the recommendation is this: you must play it now.

It's by developer The Behemoth. They're previously responsible for Alien Hominid, an old-school run-and-gun Contra-style shooter, most notable for its lovable art style, buckets of humour, and nun-punching difficulty curve. Hominid was cute but not terribly accessible; it's with great pleasure I say that Castle Crashers captures all of what worked in Hominid and makes it actually fun.

Castle Crashers is a beat-em-up in the style of Golden Axe or Streets of Rage. Very much in the style of: it in fact contains numerous references to its source material, including rideable two-legged lizards and little dwarves who will try and steal your gold. Gameplay consists of walking right, while beating things with your weapons. You have a pseudo-3D play field, but, in true old-school style, youl'll need to be vertically aligned with your opponents to hit them. Stand a couple of pixels above them or below them and you can flail ineffectually for hours without landing a blow.

This sort of game is best experienced with friends, and Castle Crashers supports full four-player multiplayer, either locally or online. It also brings a number of quasi-innovations to the genre, including RPG style levelling up and skill training (which, yes, I realise was sort-of kind-of in the classic River City Ransom). You can collect and choose from a variety of weapons, you can unlock "animal orbs" which are chubby little floating animals which confer passive bonuses, and you can find a range of inventory items including potions and ranged weapons. There's a bunch of alternate characters to unlock, as well - many, many more than you could imagine actually using.

It's mostly hilariously funny, with the exception of an extended "poop joke" in the second area, and the crisp sprite-based graphics are a visual treat. It's also backed up by a full orchestral soundtrack that's well worth listening to all by itself.

Right up there with Braid and Geometry Wars 2, this is one of the definitive Live Arcade titles. It's the sort of thing you can expect to see ported to system after system over the next decade or so, so you're going to get lots of chances to play it, but there's no good reason to wait - get it now, and have a whole mess of fun right up front.

Interactive Australia 2009 Report

Bad game journalists! Bad!

Apparently Dr Jeffery Brand, Ms Jill Borchard and Ms Kym Holmes of the Bond University yesterday published a little something called the "Interactive Australia 2009 Report" which contains a whole bunch of statistics that are very favourable to our gaming Australia. Kotaku's quoting the thing like mad; that's okay, as they're fairly credibly claiming to have an actual copy of the report in front of them. The Herald-Sun have done some reporting and they also appear to actually have the document.

The bad sets in because every man and his dog is on-quoting them without reading the report for themselves. How do I know? Because if they had read the report they would have linked to it. I've had to go and find the thing through my own researches instead of just trusting in the magic of the hypertext markup language. Thanks to the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia for, as I understand it, commissioning the report and providing the linkage above.

So - the statistics! And be aware that while this summary is nicely sound-bitey, you should go and read the source material for yourself before you start deriving conclusions and possibly looking like an idiot.

(1) Average age of an Australian gamer is 30. That's up two years from 2007, when it was 28, which means not just that the existing population is ageing but that we're picking up new gamers from older demographics.

(2) 88% of Australian households have at least one gaming device (meaning, conversely, that only 12% are going without). 61% have more than one gaming device. "Game device" is defined here to include PCs, consoles and handhelds. Mobile phones and PDAs are specifically excluded.

(3) Male/female player ratio is 54% male, 46% female, up from 59/41 in 2007.

(4) Only 3% of gamers report never playing games socially; 97% report gaming at least occasionally with others in the same location or via the internet.

(5) 63% of Australians are unaware Australia has no R18+ classification for games; 91% of Australians, whether gamers or not, support the introduction of an R18+ rating.

(6) 17% of Australian households report being in possession of pirated games. 24% of those in possession of an illegal game report that they "often" or "usually" go on to purchase legitimate copies of those games.

There's also some analysis of games in parenting, and a bunch of fuzzy-wuzzy quotes and anecdotal stuff which doesn't exactly provide hard fact but does help non-gamers understand where some of the results are coming from.

By and large it seems like excellent research. It is commissioned research; it's not study for the love of study, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's bad. Do check out the methodology at the end of the report; it seems pretty reasonable to a non-statistician like myself. Sample size was 1614; a portion of the sample was surveyed online, which may mean a bias towards the tech literate.

Anyone who's got a criticism of the methodology or an analysis of the results please comment, or link me to your post elsewhere. And if you're quoting the survey please remember the different between what people report when surveyed and the actual fact.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Celebration System at Kill Ten Rats

Zubon's in fine form over at Kill Ten Rats; you should go and read his post Celebration System, mostly for the lolz but also for the truth. He makes the excellent point that once you accept that your standard MMO is largely built around stoking one's ego, most of the current crop really don't go far enough.

And, uh, once you're done there, come back here and read my stuff.

Amorphous +

Can I direct your attention to a little something I've been enjoying lately? And I'll warn you in advance that being free, flash-driven and browser-based it strays dangerously close to the dark provinces of the casual game.

It's Amorphous +; I'm playing the thing through Kongregate but you can probably find it on any number of game portals.

Basically, you're a little dude with a sword so ridiculously large it puts the cast of Final Fantasy to shame. Your job is to swing the sword, and splat jelly-like blobs before they splat you. It sounds simple enough, but the real skill is in earning combos by splatting multiple blobs in a single swing. That gets complex as the different blobs have interesting interactions - Glooples can merge to become a significantly more dangerous larger species, Inkies leave blinding ink that Toasties can set on fire, and Melties leave a pool of acid on death which kills anything that crosses it.

All these shenannigans should be run of the mill but somehow they're fantastically entertaining. Plus there's a whole mess of awards to get for doing any number of crazy things, which makes the whole thing start to get deeply addictive.

There's a good couple of hours of gameplay in this thing. And it's free. I highly recommend it. Go play it now.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Alan Wake Trailer

Alan Wake has been skirting on the verge of vaporware for quite some time now, but it seems like the folks at developer Remedy (Max Payne) plus the mighty publisher-wheels of Microsoft have got the thing back on track. Seen here is the new trailer, which is five flavours of awesome, and reminds me why I absolutely loved the idea of this thing when I first heard about it. Back in 2005.

Do you know where the trailer comes from? The Finnish Max Payne convention. That's right: they have a convention. Ignoring the horrible movie which never happened I love Max Payne and now I have yet another reason to envy the Finnish.

Disco Stick

"Let's have some fun, this beat is sick. I wanna take a ride on your disco stick."

Worst. Song. Ever.

I blame Laura for this. Also for this, which is the reason that we should all look at ball-jointed dolls as if they are odd.

Real post to follow shortly.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Real-Time Censorship

Disturbing news, everybody!

Microsoft have patented a technology for real-time audio censorship. The technology analyses recorded or live transmitted speech to look for "undesirable" words or phrases and render them inaudible. Which means you can swear all you want, and the person on the other end of the line will just wonder why you've suddenly gone quiet.

Microsoft obviously intends to turn the thing loose on XBox Live, so that young babies and suchlike will be protected from the ravages of the 14-year-old vocabulary, and as a togglable option that's probably something that everyone on that community can benefit from.

It's one of those technologies, though, that could have a lot of horrible, horrible applications in the wrong hands. Can you picture the thing being applied wholesale to our phone system? To our television networks? Ars Technica have already seen the problem in their article, and they draw our attention to the love that regimes like that in China would have for this process. Picture a world where the word "election" simply can't be communicated over a telephone line.

YouTube already uses something similar for automatically detecting copyrighted material in uploaded videos, whereby videos that the algorithm thinks contains visual or audio information belonging to another party are flagged, and the onus is on the video uploader to prove that their work is original. The algorithm is, of course, secret, so the precise method by which it brands you a criminal is neither known nor open to criticism.

Naturally, you can't put the genie back in the box, and the development of something like this was more or less a cultural inevitability. Ultimately the only way that we, as a society, can see that this benefits us more than it harms us is by strong privacy laws, a free and intelligent ongoing political debate on the issue, and through the vigilance of each individual citizen.

Non-Molyneux Syndicate

Ask and ye shall receive. Barely had I uttered my desire for a new Syndicate game free of the taint of Peter Molyneux when the news came through that the thing was in development.

And who's making it? Starbreeze, the fellows who crafted Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher's Bay and The Darkness, two of the most criminally underappreciated games of recent years.

This is Very Good News (TM). Starbreeze have a track record of stylish atmosphere, tight narrative, and amazing attention to detail (albeit a fairly short track record). These are absolutely the people we want working on a project like this.

If the world keeps fulfilling my ridiculous franchise resurrection demands, I'm clearly going to have to make my wishlist more extreme. Where's my Blizzard-developed Alex Kidd real-time strategy, damn it?

ACT Election Result

The ACT Election is over and unfortunately I was not successful in winning a seat in the Assembly. However, Canberra got, on the whole, a good result. The count is not yet final but it seems fairly certain that the Assembly will be 7 Labor, 7 Liberal and 3 Greens, which is a major swing against the older parties and a fantastic and unprecedented result for the Greens. Most of the successful candidates across all parties were intelligent, competent people and with a little luck the ACT will be well served by their new parliament.

Just because the election's over doesn't mean I've stopped campaigning! Relevantly to this blog, I'm still fighting for an R18+ rating in games so stay tuned for more developments on that front.

And I now return you to your regularly scheduled game blogging.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

DSi Region Locked

Remember how I was excited about the new Nintendo DSi?

Never mind.

The thing's region locked. No importing sweet, sweet gaming candy from Japan. Or America. In fact, I'd be pretty much just stuck with the distinctly lackluster game distribution network of Australia, which seems to largely involve seeing a game come out in America and then waiting for continental drift to bring it within my grasp. (Still a month till we get the original Rock Band!)

By itself that'd be... manageable, but when you combine it with the dropped GBA port it's a big turn-off. About 75% of my current DS library is GBA or imported. Not particularly keen to buy a functionally identical new system that less of my games will work on. Oh, and I'd bet money that it also locks out R4 cards, so that's hombrew off the menu too. Plus the lack of the GBA port means I can't use the Rumble Pak, I can't use the cross-generation functionality from the recent Pokemon games, and in the unlikely event that the DS card reader or trackball games ever make their way out of Japan they won't work either.

Bad Nintendo! Bad!

You can still save the system by telling me that GBA games will be available for download. I know you want to tell me that. Just give in.

Secret of Mana on Virtual Console

In case you didn't read the title: SECRET OF MANA ON VIRTUAL CONSOLE!

Yes: it's available for download to your Wii. Yes: the three-player co-op is intact. Yes: Squeenix are finally releasing their SNES classic for your retro-gaming delight.

This is one of those games that's every bit as good today as it was when it was released. If you've (somehow) never played Secret of Mana this is a must-buy Virtual Console title. If you have played it, heck, it's still a must-buy.

So - who wants to help me complete this for, what, the fourth time now?

NOTE: I'm not entirely clear whether this is "out now" or "out come the next VC update, either this Friday or the Friday following". I'll check the VC store when I get home and let you know.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Can We Have....

While we're talking about my unabashed enthusiasm for a new Parasite Eve game, could I run through some of the rest of my gaming wishlist? These are games that desperately need to happen.

Vagrant Story 2: I'm not sure why Vagrant Story does not have memorial plaques installed in its honour in major cities worldwide. This is one of the most criminally underappreciated games every produced. In the absence of some kind of national moment of silence, it's clear that the Vagrant Story genius should be honoured in the manner traditional among the gaming industry - which is to say, by means of a sequel.

A new Blackthorne game: Whenever Blizzard want to remind people they've made games other than Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo, they tend to drag out The Lost Vikings. That's a bit of a shame, because they should instead be drawing people's attention to Blackthorne, their 90s action platformer which worked a little like a cross between Abe's Oddyssey and Flashback. It's a property that needs some loving. And speaking of which...

A new Flashback game: Fade to Black never happened. Never happened. Which leaves Flashback sitting lost and alone with a "to be continued" ending that was never adequately consummated. This franchise is just ripe for a quality platformer in the style of the original to be developed for, say, XBLA or Wiiware. Providing, of course, that you can work out who owns the rights to it these days.

A non-Molyneux Syndicate game: Syndicate was full of great ideas. Cyberpunk corporate warfare, brainwashing crowds of people, tactical real-time lynch mobs. But it was by Peter Molyneux's then company Bullfrog, and their motto may as well have been "great ideas, woeful implementation". Much like other Bullfrog titles Magic Carpet, Dungeon Keeper, Populous and Power Monger, Syndicate hid its good points under a mountain of dubious pacing, poor level design and horrendous user interface. I would love to see someone competent take a crack at this franchise; unfortunately I think the rights are still with Molyneux in his new company Lionhead.

A Bethesda-made Ultima game: I love Ultima. Yes, despite everything that happened to it after Ultima VII. The rights to it are languishing a bit now, and in any case it's kind of run into the ground. The style of Ultima greatly influenced developer Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games and I can't think of anyone better suited to getting the property back on its feet. Right as I write this Richard Garriott is in outer space so there's never been a better time to steal the IP while he's not looking.

A new Road Rash: Haven't you heard? EA makes good games now. Or so I'm told. They still have the rights to bash-em-up motorcycling franchise Road Rash so it'd be great to see them do something with it. I'd say a good place to start for updating it would be to look at Criterion's Burnout franchise. I'm really jonesing to beat some bikers with a length of chain.

A new Star Control: Give the rights back to the creators. They've promised that they'll erase Star Control 3 from continuity and give us a real sequel to SC2. None of that "the Precursors evolved into cows" rubbish.

A new Azure Dreams: Did you play that thing? It was like a Pokemon-Roguelike-dating sim. Better than crack. I'm talking the PlayStation version, not the GBC port.

Duck Hunt: ... as a survival horror. Because that would be awesome.

I live in hope. Developers and publishers, take notes. These ideas are all filled with win, and you must implement them immediately. I know where you live.

Parasite Eve - Good News / Bad News

Am I the only person in the world that thinks Parasite Eve 2 was an overlooked work of genius? Am I seriously the only Parasite Eve fanboi out there?

Specifically, why did no one mention to me Parasite Eve: The 3rd Birthday is on its way? This is the greatest news ever. We need a commemorative holiday.

This is the series that mixed classic Square-Enix roleplaying with a near future real-world setting and real-time gunplay. This is the series where the bad guys are your mitochondria. That's hard science.

Unfortunately, much like the upcoming Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, 3rd Birthday is for the PSP. So I guess now we all have to wait around until Squeenix sees fit to announce they're porting it to a real system.

Friday, October 10, 2008

No More Heroes 2 Trailer

Okay, sure, the No More Heroes extended ending finished with a "To Be Continued", but no-one thought they were actually serious.

Joke's on us, apparently. Travis Touchdown is back for No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle, which looks to be just as wholly ridiculous as the original.

Go figure.

Prince of Persia Trailer

The world owes Valve and Jonathon Coulter a debt. Ever since the runaway success of Portal and its excellent closing music "Still Alive", it's like the game industry woke up and realised that a killer theme song is worth a year of development.

Here we have the Tokyo Game Show trailer for the new Prince of Persia, and by golly it's a thing to see. There is no possible way that playing this game can be more enjoyable than watching the trailers for it. A quick search has failed to turn up the artist / track info for the music but if anyone knows it drop me a comment and I'll update.

Also - and I've had some experience with the previous games - this still feels less like Prince of Persia than it does a free-running version of Ico. I'm intrigued. Intensely intrigued.

UPDATE: The artist is Sia, the track is "Breathe Me", and you can hear it in full on YouTube (link). Thanks Chris!

The Travel Agent

Can I sell you on this idea for a game I have?

In it, you see, you're this super-soldier. I mean, you're frikkin' huge. And you've got guns! Guns like you wouldn't believe! Anyway, there's some bad guys, and it's up to you to shoot them right in the face. What makes it cool is that you have some kind of a unique power. Probably to do with time.

No? Wait, I've got another one.

Get this - you're a guy with a sword. Or an axe. There are options. And anyway, you're in this world that's being menaced by darkness, which is used as a metaphor for evil. And pretty much you're the only one who can do anything about it. There's, like, a million quests you can do, and you can find loot. But - get this - you don't have to! You can be a jerk! Like, a really cool jerk, with glowing eyes. Or not. It's going to be huge.

It's just not grabbing you, is it?

Look, I'm as big a fan of shotgun-based hilarity as the next person, and my tolerance for levelling up is ridiculously high, but no matter how much I might like my gaming staples I get tired once genre devolves into generic.

Game developers - listen up. You should not be in the business of selling us content. You should not be marketing hours of gameplay. It is not important exactly how many action packed levels you have included.

You are selling an experience. Sitting down with a new game is like going on holiday; you are our travel agent. If you want us to buy, you need to offer at least one of three things:
* a unique destination;
* a better journey; or
* a more stylish mode of transport.

I'm in danger of straining a metaphor, but stay with me here.

A Unique Destination: Take us somewhere new. Let us be someone unique. War ravaged cities have been done a million times, but Bioshock's submerged objectivist dystopia was one of a kind. You can be a kung-fu streetfighter anywhere, but if you want to be a licensed hip-hop superstar the only door is through the DefJam franchise.

A Better Journey: There's nothing about Half-Life's plotline that pushes the envelope. What makes it exceptional is the execution. It knows that it's not delivering a game so much as it's delivering an experience. It's the difference between buying product from a bargain bin and making a purchase through a sales consultant. Half-Life is speaking directly to the player, and is concerned with exactly what response it's provoking in the player. It's not offering content - it's targeting content.

More Stylish Transport: Atmosphere is everything. Something prosaic can be amazing when placed in context. Getting the atmosphere right is what makes Silent Hill effective and House of the Dead not so effective. It's what distinguishes Fallout from Outlander (who remembers Outlander?) and Wing Commander III from Wing Commander V. Knowing your strengths, playing to them, and making every aspect of your design subservient to the reaction you want to provoke in the player.

Gaming is a wide, wide world, but travel agents keep trying to sell me the same package again and again.

Frankly, I'd like something new.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Mirror's Edge Theme

Anyone want to hear the theme from upcoming EA/DICE free-running title Mirror's Edge? Here it is: "Still Alive" by Lisa Miskovsky, set to a fan footage compilation. Nothing to do with the similarly titled, and somewhat more awesome, theme from Portal.

Hey - how weird is it that EA are making original intellectual property that I actually want to play?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Must. Have.

It's official: the Nintendo DSi. My favourite gaming platform just got 100% more awesome.

- larger screens
- two built in 3 megapixel cameras
- SD card slot to store data and transfer between the DSi and the Wii
- built in web browser
- built in image editor
- on board memory
- ability to download games from the Wii Shop and boot from on-board memory
- music playback
- better audio support including the option to adjust pitch
- slimmer profile
- ... but no GBA slot (boo!) although if Nintendo are smart they'll start offering GBA games for download

Available in Japan in less than a month. Westerners unwilling to import get to wait till Spring next year. Announced Japanese pricing translates to around $180 AUD. Sign me up.

EDIT: On the less rosy side, Kotaku suggests the DSi will have a significantly worse battery life. As in, only half as much play before you need to recharge. Not sure what they're basing it on but it's a bit worrying.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Endangered Words

Some of my favourite words are in danger of extinction! The Collins Dictionary people have made a list of some otiose verbage they'll be dropping in future editions as part of a scheme to get some cheap publicity make their publication more relevant. Check out the story.

Periapt is on the list. Clearly these people are not gamers. The periapt is a vital neck slot item which serves as a much needed alternative to the "amulet", "necklace" or "pendant". Based on its historical origins, it is most likely to confer benefits to one's health or vitality. A robust thesaurus of medieval casualwear is the backbone of any good loot table.

The portmanteau terms compossible and embrangle are similarly in the line of fire. These are totally not real words but that's no reason to leave them out of the dictionary. The deliberate obfuscation of our own language is the only thing that separates us from the French. From the French.

Exuviate (to shed, in the manner of skin) is a word that I used in casual conversation just last week. True story. Possibly that says more about me than it does the dictionary.

Apparently muliebrity means "the condition of being a woman", which is absolutely something that needs its own word. I'm pretty sure that this is going straight to the top of "words my friends are immediately sick of me using".

In any case, you should definitely check the list and begin using as many items from it as possible. Levelling up your word-fu and confounding the weak-minded go hand in hand, and both those things are more fun than swimming in sherbert, so you've really got no excuse.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

SBCG4AP: Episode 2

I've got a lot of love for Telltale Games, but I'm getting a little frustrated with their Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People series.

I mean, I'm having buckets of fun with the things. These are good games. You should buy them. It's just that they should be better.

Episode 2 (entitled "Strongbadia the Free") is out for PC and Wiiware. Actually it's been out for a few weeks. And while it's often funny and usually fun, it's full of little things about which, dammit, Telltale should know better.

First up is that, like the first game, there are a bunch of lists and collections to complete during play. Completing these side-goals increases your "rank", although doesn't do much else. That's all right - finishing a list is its own reward. Unfortunately, maxing out your collections involves doing certain things at the right point in the game. The game goes into an "extended play" mode once the story's over but that's not much use as you can't regain items you've used up, or revisit earlier states of the game. Starting a new game resets your collection, and besides, maxing out the lists isn't so inherently entertaining as to justify an entire second play-through.

The game also has the feel of being poorly planned. There are regular setups for quite extended puzzle sequences that look as if they were cut down for time and budget reasons. One area requires you to demonstrate your "dance skills and style", but upon solving the "style" challenge the dance skills are never really tested, despite there being the option to ask characters for dance tips. Another sequence, which involves Strong Sad drinking some dubious water, definitely feels like a puzzle was cut out.

The story revolves around the King of Town introducing an email tax, and the various inhabitants of Free Country USA subsequently rebelling by forming their own kingdoms. However, what one would expect to be the most dramatic and hilarious scenes are missing entirely; the rebellion happens off camera, as does Strong Bad's climactic assault on the King of Town's castle. It again feels like the developers simply ran out of time and money (which they probably did).

Lastly, there's no consistency in the "click for flavour text" area. Some items you can keep clicking on for more information (and occasionally plot progression) while others yield the same result every time. The game should have consistently implemented a "two results for every item" policy, so that once you've clicked on something twice you don't need to do it again. It's really irritating to be punished for experimentation with repeated dialogue.

Anyway, despite these gripes, SBCG4AP is still pretty fun. Hopefully Telltale will keep ironing out these problems as the series progresses. Fingers crossed.

Professor Layton 3 Trailer

So this is the Japanese trailer for DS puzzle title Professor Layton 3, also known as Professor Layton and the Last Time Travel. It's theoretically intended to bring the Professor Layton trilogy to a close, and there certainly seems to be plenty of exciting plot in the works. Even if none of that plot will have anything to do with the gameplay. It gets me all excited to go toe-to-toe with another 150 puzzles that I've seen a million times before.

Anyway, that's a great trailer and all, but do you know what would be even better? An English language version of Professor Layton 2. Japan's had it for almost a year.