Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Monday, March 27, 2017

Did Ben Rivers Listen?

Wow, it's for the Vita, too? That's dedication.

In my last update of Carbon-izer, I added three new "reviews" to my increasingly growing list of game pages, all ones I had played in the last 12 months. One was good, one was average, and one bad. The first was Batman: Arkham Asylum, which I loved, Retro City Rampage which was average due to the fact that there were a lot of good ideas mixed in with a lot of bad ones, and one I hated Home, which I mercilessly ripped into while describing its flaws. But a funny thing happened, as I had posted the Home review to Steam about the same time as I published the website, and guess what happened? Home got its first update in a year with a minor patch coming very soon afterward. There were some things that I mentioned that got covered, including the following: "screenshots now work consistently", "fixed a couple of instances where the story got confused about something you'd seen", and the most intriguing entry that I have yet to see for myself, "changed one of the opening titles to mention speakers as well as headphones". That was one of the things I specifically lambasted.

So what does this mean? Well, it means my "hack" to get the "walk away" achievement no longer works. But the more important thing is that even though the "story" is still a mess, I actually feel like Benjamin Rivers read my review and took it to heart, though he'd probably never admit it. Very few active game developers have done that, especially one as old as Home is (it was made five years ago). Does this mean that Home is a better game than I gave it credit for? No. It's still got major flaws, and my review still largely stands as-is. But now, I feel like despite all that, I feel like I may have been overly hard on Benjamin Rivers and my opinion has been raised slightly. I believe that if he did fix all the things I pointed out, then he probably read the rest too and can use that to improve other games. I will link to this blog post when Carbon-izer 22 is posted.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Back to the Future: The Game: The Review: Part III

"Wait, in 2017, Donald Trump is President of the United States? You sure we didn't mess up the timeline, Doc?"

The final page of our trilogy, last picked up nearly six months ago, when we covered the remaining part of the Back to the Future: The Game review that wasn't covered in the original review. the the end of the game has Marty back home in 1986 and several alternate older Marty McFlys (voiced by Michael J. Fox, who makes a cameo in one of the later episodes, and it's apparent he can't quite pull off his own voice), including one dressed like Griff from 2015 come out of different DeLoreans and all start arguing. Then the credits roll, and there's a "To Be Continued" in case they decide to make another set of 5 episodes (unlikely). But in this "New and Improved" timeline, Kid and Edna have hooked up (in prison, apparently...I guess through letters), and Edna serves as a "good" stepmother for Biff instead of Gertrude, who was unseen screechy voice in the second movie. But that would also undermine the plot of the original movie, which largely hinged on Biff being an asshole. It would also make Principal Strickland his uncle. Basically, the damage it would do to the original timeline is incalculable.

If they were going to write themselves into a corner, they should take a ridiculous way out and have the further meddling of the timeline destroy the time-space continuum.

To be fair, the movies played pretty fast and loose with the way time travel worked, one of the most glaring ones being from the first movie where Marty returns home yet is bewildered by the changes at the McFly household, whereas his the rest of his family thinks he's nuts. When Marty goes to 2015, even if it's assumed that Marty will return home and become Old Marty in 2015, but there's never been a case where multiple characters of the same age come up to one timeline, nor where things radically change but old remnants show up, or how they got so many copies of the DeLorean. It just doesn't make sense, at all. At least the movies had their own sort of convoluted logic where the inconsistencies were few and others could be hand-waved away, but not this.

You might argue at this point I've been too hard on Back to the Future: The Game because the point wasn't to write Back to the Future Part IV, it was to make a licensed game of Back to the Future that wasn't completely awful, which is better than what a lot of licensed games can claim. And that should be enough. Or should it?

Even Back to the Future for the NES was better than this.

The desire to actually make an extended fan fiction of Back to the Future forced gameplay to take a back seat, and combined with Telltale's dumbing down of adventure game elements (part of the fun of LucasArts games was the madcap scenarios and the great writing) it made for a slogging experience. Most of the story was propelled through dialogue trees, not snappy cutscenes, and there are far too many things I can't work out yet (like resolving the issue how the 1885 saloon was owned, or at least built by, a Tannen).

It turns out that the game has been adapted (rather faithfully from the preview images I've seen) into a comic book series called Back to the Future: Citizen Brown. I'm not going to buy it, but in retrospect, reading it probably is a good alternative to playing the game.

Like I said, through all of its problems the story is engaging enough to keep through to the end (looking at when I wrote the review, it's possible I played the other episodes only because of a rather debilitating injury to one of my fingers, making it difficult to play more intense games), but the numerous problems make it hard to recommend, even if you really liked the movie. Part of the problem was the fifth episode, which was scored the lowest by critics and rushed the conclusion. Part of the problem I guess was trying to mirror III's trip back to the Old West, but it would've almost been more interesting to see the "real" Hill Valley 2015. It was already hinted that our reality is the BTTF reality (Doc uses a modern video game controller at some point, which he admits to borrowing from his son's "early 21st century video game systems" or something along those lines), so maybe seeing the "real" 2015 would be nice. But to make that work, you'd have to see the prominent Burger King at 545 Victory Boulevard, Burbank, California (and in 2015 it looked very similar to its 1985 counterpart)...but given how they treat every brand name as toxic waste, even ones that would be relatively easy to procure, it just wouldn't work, and even if they did make the effort (and become a rare positive example of product placement, that there would be Western Auto (not "Eastern Auto"), JCPenney, Robinson's, and others...then it would make the blatant disregard of the universe's rules that more obvious (and in case it wasn't already obvious, the story was written by three people, none of whom worked on the original films).

Point is--it's a great budget-oriented licensed title. As a full stand-alone game that happens to use the Back to the Future license, it sucks. The truth is always somewhere in the middle.

Pictures from this post are from GameInformer and Wikimedia Commons, respectively

Monday, January 16, 2017

Details on the Nintendo Switch: A Real Turn-Off

Despite some strong games, I don't think these two will be able to save the Switch. [source: DarkChapolin, DeviantArt]

Obviously I must admit that my fantasy of Nintendo Switch being secretly Steam compatible was just that--a fantasy (though one that I still hold was plausible), but I didn't expect the Nintendo Switch "Treehouse" event to be as awful as it was. Any attempts to "win back the crowd" have gone out the window and instead Nintendo tries to further alienate fans (and ex-fans).

It's like they took every bad idea from the last two generations and then combined into one console.

There's an online feature, which is like Xbox Live, but worst--at this rate, your console will stay offline unless you want to buy presumably the same Virtual Console games for the second, third, fourth time, and even the "free" Xbox Live allows things like voice chat and basic online play.

The Miis are back per a screengrab from Mario Kart 8 DX, though likely in a lessened capacity.

No Nintendo mainstream console has disallowed backwards compatibility since the release of the Nintendo GameCube in 2001, and we see how that performed, despite a fairly strong line-up of titles and many of the same third party titles the PS2 and Xbox received, and no handheld has disallowed backwards compatibility ever. But since this does seem to be a hybrid device, maybe we could count the Virtual Boy, and we all know what happened to that.

Rather than an exclusive launch title game that showcases what the console is capable of, we get 1-2 Switch, basically a collection of mini-games to see who can time the button the best. I guess it's fitting that the launch title didn't really focus on the actual graphics. And what could easily pass for a tech demo or at least part of a pack-in game will be $50 at launch.

ARMS looks to be the next-gen "Wii Sports" of the Switch (at least boxing), with its more accurate motion controls than anything the Wii had to offer, but to be honest, although it is somewhat of a creative idea, it still feels like Nintendo is nostalgic for the Wii rather than its older, more successful consoles. It was mentioned that the game will have traditional controls rather than forcing motion controls, so we don't need to be up in ARMS over that, but it looks far too bland to be anything close to resembling Punch-Out!!, with the actual character names being case in point: "Spring Man and Ribbon Girl".

What about some pun-based name based on the fact that his hair looks like cupcake frosting, or perhaps toothpaste?

Besides, what the fans want to see (the ones that keep buying Nintendo products despite the fact that since the N64, every console gets worse and worse) is the fifth iteration of Super Smash Bros..

I never played Splatoon but I heard it was fun. Hell, even Yahtzee liked it well enough despite some rather obvious shortcomings. Splatoon 2 on the Switch sounds looks like it might be a fun party game but again, it's not a launch title. Furthermore, I expect that if you have to pay for online (and Splatoon was mostly online multiplayer), there can at least be more than two teams, which is all I saw in the trailer. A third & fourth team could be good, so if you had three friends over, all of you can be on one team or all playing separately.

Snipperclips: Cut It Out, Together! actually looks pretty fun and would probably be one of those intriguing little indie games that come out on Steam from time to time had it not been on the Switch. We'll see how that goes.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild again looks fine and will take the same way that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess went for the GameCube and the Wii. That went well for both consoles, but the Wii also seemed to be exploding with new game concepts and ideas that could take it even farther. Not so much with the Switch.

Super Mario Odyssey looks great, and I have to say it looks to be as good as a Mario game as the first Super Mario Galaxy. Probably this is because it's the first 3D Mario game since Super Mario Galaxy 2, which I never played due to the fact that I hadn't finished the first one (yet) and without an overarching story like SMG one was just felt like an overpriced expansion pack (which it was originally supposed to be). But I couldn't help but get these Sonic Adventure vibes out of it (someone else noticed). It's like we're going full circle back to '99, Nintendo becomes Sega and Sears becomes Montgomery Ward. But unlike SA, SMO won't come out until the holidays, and even then I don't think it could carry the console.

You can't just say, "Well, the games look great," because consoles have shown a collection of great games in and of themselves do not make a console successful. The Dreamcast definitely had a line-up of exclusive and decent games, as well as actually (for 1999 at least) being better than anything else on the market, yet it was discontinued just after less than three years on the market.

It's still underpowered per other consoles (especially at the storage size, just 32GB) and far overpriced for a handheld (especially one that can't play any other games). Basically, they either need a dramatic price drop or some other huge feature that hasn't yet been revealed to really sell it properly.

The good news if the Switch fails (let's hope so), it might mean Nintendo finally going to computers, as for years, they've refused (admittedly, 1980s and 1990s PCs were not on par with console games and far less friendly, but that's different) and only allowed licensed tripe like Mario Teaches Typing or whatever. And no, Silhouette doesn't count, I think there's ample evidence that Silhouette is a hoax perpetuated by early Snes9x developers.

Like the Dreamcast, the Switch will probably be technically impressive, get a lot of mileage out of hacking, and will probably have some really neat exclusives, but ultimately it won't last. Call me back in four years and tell me I'm right.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Nintendo Switch to Steam Power?

Some years ago I watched the Nintendo E3 event and saw them unveil the Wii U for the first time, and I wrote about it in the blog. Although the writing seems amateurish today, I was not impressed. The Nintendo Switch, which promises to meld the console and handheld experience, is at least a cool idea but to me it still misses the point of why Nintendo became good in the first place before its fall from grace.

The reason why the NES did very well in the marketplace is that it had brilliant games no one else had, and not necessarily because of its exclusivity contract. Better graphics, better game play. In NES games at least compared to the Atari 2600 and its contemporaries, a higher level didn't mean the "the same but more" or "the same but faster", but a whole new experience. New layouts. New bosses. New music. The Sega Master System was more expensive, arrived after the NES had hit the stores, and did not even have a solid line-up of first-party titles. Ask anyone to name some "solid SMS exclusives" and you'll probably get Alex Kidd or Phantasy Star.

And you thought the U.S. box art for the first Mega Man was terrible.

The Super NES fought off stronger competition with once again a superior system with superior games. Their decision to push better games instead of finicky add-ons cemented their place in history. The excellent book Console Wars makes note of the day that, although it isn't explicitly stated in the book, the functional end of Sega as a serious competitor: November 21, 1994. On that day, Sega released the Sega 32X, and Nintendo released Donkey Kong Country. To borrow from a less-successful console from that time period's marketing, "do the math".

It was the Nintendo 64 where Nintendo started to lose track of the industry, by focusing on what they wanted to do and not where the market was going, and that cost them dearly, even if the games would still be good in that period. Fast forward twenty years from 1996 to 2016, and the big problem is that Nintendo's still trying to play by its own rules while the games department is running on fumes. When was the last good Mario, Metroid, or Zelda game made? About a video game generation ago, that's when (at least).

I should point out that Nintendo started doing backwards compatibility for its products only when things started to go wrong. I don't think the Wii would've done nearly as well if did not accept GameCube discs, and the problem with the Nintendo Switch is it won't seem to do Nintendo 3DS games or Wii U games at least out of the box, and given the state of both third parties and first parties these days that's a slim chance that it could do well, and even if it was officially announced, would you drop a high amount of money to play a remastered version of Skyrim? And with the output of Mario's games lately, what will another game look like after Nintendo has hooked up Mario to the milking machine again?

However, Nintendo has stated that it won't replace the Wii U or Nintendo 3DS and will be a new thing, either as insurance policy (like the Nintendo 3DS) or if they really want to be a third column thing (invoking Virtual Boy). And if it carries neither of those products, it will only cut into sales and shelf space of their other products and really harm the company as a whole.

BUT, rather than viewing it as a failure in the making (I'm sure that they'll be a small but vocal segment who will buy it and extol it), what if it totally is different? Watching the video shows it to be a quite large screen compared to the Nintendo 3DS and its contemporaries. I am sure that if this was the case, it would cause more disruption than an Election Day result, but probably also announced by now...if it was compatible with Steam.

While it may sound like wishful fanboy thinking, and to be honest it is, I think some of it does make sense.

1. Why would Bethesda not confirm Skyrim for the Switch but for everyone else? The first explanation would be still waffling if the Nintendo Switch would be a failure or not, which bodes poorly for the system, but the second is if the Switch isn't exactly a stand-alone console, it's a Nintendo-branded PC.

2. Nintendo's willingness to try mobile games may be a prelude to them actually doing a full PC launch. Pokémon Go was a huge hit, making $250 million in a few weeks, while the Wii U loses money on every unit sold and its software sales aren't a whole lot better. It's the 3DS that really carries the company, and even sales for that are slowing down.

3. People have complained for years as to why Nintendo does not make games on the PC, especially as digital distribution makes it easier than ever. Recently, I posted that SMACH Z was doomed for failure because it was hardware based had no software inherent to itself. If it was Nintendo making it, they could pair Steam re-releases with the console, as well as adding exclusives via physical media that may or may not eventually make it to digital distribution later. A well-timed launch will make a massive impact, as it would let people who wanted a handheld Steam device get one, PC gamers pick up "official" copies of games that doesn't involve mucking around with Ice and adding non-Steam games (think about how relatively successful Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VI releases on Steam were), and add incentives for non-Nintendo diehards to purchase one. It would be perfect for everybody.

Buying Super Mario Bros. again may be a tough sell. Maybe if it had extra features somehow...

4. The controller snap-ons. If you had a dedicated home controller for playing at home to just pick up (which it seems to have have and not the derpy snap-together controller that looks like a dog, you don't need to detach the controller pieces every time if you're coming to play back home. The idea would be different snap-on designs for different types of games. Imagine one more designed for FPS use while one designed with a solid NES-style D-pad. The controllers could be the ones that make money.

5. The final reason is that Nintendo has so much to lose if it fails. The system itself is going to incompatible with the 3DS and Wii U without additional hardware (and hardware add-ons have never really worked in market saturation) and there is absolutely no other hardware (announced or rumored) in the pipeline, and neither Pokémon Go nor Super Mario Run will save Nintendo. The only thing that kept Sega running was a $692 million infusion of cash from the late Isao Okawa's personal fortune shortly before the company was acquired in 2004 by Sammy Corporation. If the Nintendo Switch is a success, Nintendo can keep making hardware even if it plays others' software, and still maintain an exclusive group of IPs, keeping the brand alive and in good standing in hearts, minds, and wallets of consumers, as well as continuing to be a promising hardware manufacturer, even after Miyamoto dies someday. If the Nintendo Switch is a failure, that's it. The Game Boy/Nintendo DS line will die with the 3DS, and while they might license out their IPs or make new games, they're finished. I wouldn't bet on them making third party titles unless they have the resources to even do it. Keeping with the Sega example above, the Dreamcast still sold 9.2 million units in its lifetime. That's less than the Wii U's numbers, but they sold 9.2M units in about eighteen months, while it took Wii U two years to reach that number, and that was only because they got a third Christmas, something the Dreamcast never saw.

Even if those reasons made sense on some level to you, the bigger reason still stands. If this was some sort of thing involving Steam, why didn't they say so to begin with? I think the answer is simple--they wanted to focus on the hardware. If they immediately focused on Steam, they would've faced more criticism for the design as well as immediately raising the white flag in terms of the company's console making presence. Here they can trot out the console with no games just to get people intrigued and used to the idea, and they can do a second reveal that will really build excitement for the console. After all, I'm sure that the Nintendo Switch will be able to access Netflix and such, and they didn't show any TV shows of that sort of thing.

If the Nintendo Switch is just an intriguing idea but little to back it up beyond the usual suspects (Zelda, Mario, Pokémon, and the newer version of Splatoon teased), then there's little reason to pick it up, just like the Wii U. But if, if it does have Steam, then it will sell well. After all, Steam functionality would be the "killer feature" the Switch needs, it would provide to a huge audience, and most importantly, it will win back the crowd.

I would buy it.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Buying Retro Games? You're Getting Shafted

I run Windows 7. I'm trying to build up my Steam collection with not the latest and greatest (those are EXPENSIVE and often comes with nasty DLC) but good games or at least the ones that made press for the time (I'm not going to reinstall Façade ever again but I do have five minutes logged on the first Five Nights at Freddy's, which I did buy for cheap). You know what I'll perhaps never be able to put in my Steam library with a clear conscious? SimCity 2000. Yes, I am aware that it's on GOG. But that's not the right version. It's the DOS version, which is the first version of SimCity 2000 made. For what it's worth, it looks pretty sharp and plays okay (hardly the worst port of SC2K out there). It has awful music, but that can be mitigated with some sort of sound card plug-in for your DOSBox/DOSBox fork configuration, because the music is supposed to sound closer to this and not the wheezy, tinny sound that the AdLib makes. The Mac version was ported over from the DOS version (looks almost identical) but it has a higher resolution (the window now can be as big as you like, so that's for you people that have super-high resolution monitors) and a patch was made to fix all of the bugs that the DOS version had plus giving the Launch Arcologies the ability to launch. Having played the DOS version, I can attest how helpful the "bulldozer reversion" fix is.

But the DOS version got this patch, their 1.1 version was to fix a crash on a certain type of processor and allegedly never touched it again because they admitted the DOS code was a "mess", but the Mac OS port was elegant enough to even receive a 1.2 patch that gave it a new 4th speed level, "African Swallow", which was my first exposure to such a bird name (for some reason, I didn't actually see Monty Python & The Holy Grail until I was in college).

"Oh, yeah, an African swallow maybe, but not a European swallow, that's my point."

So rather than attempt to patch the Windows version which also has a 4th zoom level to compensate for higher resolutions but admittedly has a slightly different and duller UI (link, the newspaper seems to have suffered the most) they pass off the crap DOS version for modern Windows, Linux, and macOS users. That is unacceptable. If you want a real playable SimCity 2000 experience, use an emulator like SheepShaver or Basilisk II and find a copy yourself. However, since there's no sort of classic Mac OS "WINE" equivalent (which would be awesome), it would at best sit inside of an emulator and hardly integrate with the rest of your collection. You could, in theory, hack together said emulator with AppleScript to shut down the emulated computer once the application is closed but that would just make a bloated mess and not the elegant solution for mini vMac that could fit on a few floppies.

I recently bought a Sierra pack from Humble Bundle and was disappointed to find that the games that utilize FMV, like Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh have low-resolution videos with scan lines. The original Windows discs originally had quite the video quality, at least equal to a VHS tape of the day, whereas the DOS version resembles something more like the Sega PC. Compare the DOS version here with the Windows version here. Note the dithering artifacts.

The good news is a lot of the classic adventure games (LucasArts, Sierra) have been ported to ScummVM, where you can enjoy the "best" version, regardless of the port it was originally made on, like the NES version of Maniac Mansion, which has music that the early Apple II/DOS versions don't have.

Even the prototype of Maniac Mansion for NES suffers from some censorship, like "THRILL KILL" changed to "TUNA DIVER". I don't think there's any version out there that has the first attempted change, "MUFF DIVER".

But regardless, the prevailing theme of most any retro game is going to be a DOSBox based system. That's not what we should be paying for. It's the future, we all have powerful computers that should in theory emulate whatever the "best" system was, we should not be getting the DOSBox version unless DOS was the only system it came on. The second "retro no-no" is the Flash port, which is what the port of Déjà Vu: MacVenture Series seems to be. If you were going to port such a thing, try actually porting the engine instead of re-doing it in Flash. I don't have proof that they're doing it in Flash but I don't want to give them money to see if my theory is correct. At least they are actually trying to emulate the Mac and IIGS versions instead of pawning the DOS version on people, which is at least something.

So, what can we do to stop this? Well, we need to demand that if you re-releasing retro games, do it right. Make sure that if it is originally DOS, optimize it to run the best instead of requiring that we tweak it to prevent it from being some blurry, out of focus mess. If it can be run in a modern engine re-creation, use that engine, like SCUMM or Doomsday. If it was originally released on DOS but with a better Windows port, patch it to run on XP, 7, and above. (It is a shame that Mac games are not afforded the same freedom DOS games get, and there's no "official" way to run anything, as Apple will try to make all of its products obsolete as soon as possible but won't entertain the idea of a licensed, stripped-down System 6 or 7 for older games.)