Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Milestones : Warlords

PvP. Player versus player combat. Some say it's the end-all and be-all of videogaming. That there is no challenge greater or more worthy than facing off against a real person. While I disagree with the idea that PvP is all that there is to gaming, it certainly offers thrills and challenges that are unique and rewarding.

For me, it all began with the Atari VCS version of Warlords. While other Atari games had PvP combat (specifically the pack-in game, Combat), Warlords was the first one I experienced with four - player combat. With two sets of paddles, up to four players could fight it out for supremacy.

In Warlords, each player controlled a paddle which defended a brick castle in each of the four corners of the screen. A ball would fly around, and if it hit your castle, it took out a brick. Behind your wall of bricks there was a king, and if the ball hit the king you were out.

As the defender of your castle, you could both deflect the incoming ball or catch it, and thus release it at will toward your opponents. It made for some tense moments when you waited to see who your opponent would unleash the ball on. There were some smooth moves such as releasing the ball at a certain angle to make it very difficult to deflect, or faking an attack on one opponent and then suddenly whipping the paddle around to release it against another.

Everything about modern PvP was there with Warlords - the smack-talking, the intense rivalries, ganging up on someone if they were winning too much. And although the total win score was lost once you shut the system off, we all knew in our heads who was ahead at any given time.

With all the modern forms of PvP, the experience is a lot less pure - there are cheats, exploits, latency issues, and so much bile being spilled about it by so many people - that I sometimes wish I could go back to 1981, in that basement with my friends, and enjoy some Warlords again. But, time marches on, and PvP remains one of the most popular gaming styles to this day. For me, Warlords heralded this era, and in some ways prepared me for it.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Beaten : Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney : Justice For All

It was a long week at work, and the stress was compounded by three out of my five morning rush hour drives occurring during (or in the immediate aftermath of) severe winter storms. I kept my eye on the prize, though - on Saturday night, I'd go home, lie back on the sofa, and finish Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney : Justice For All (which I will again refer to as Phoenix Wright : JFA from here on).

I honestly have no idea why I put this game down last March and never finished it. Perhaps it's because I got my Nintendo Wii around that time and dove in to The Legend of Zelda : Twilight Princess and then Super Paper Mario. Like I said in my last blog entry, it's really hard to pick up in the middle of a case where you left off.

But I did it earlier this week, and was immediately hooked again. Once I had made a breakthrough, the momentum built, and that "I can't wait until I get home to play it" feeling took over. And tonight, I beat the game (and also found both a good ending and an unsuspected bad ending).

What makes these games so damn good anyway? The graphics are sparse and used over and over, and the gameplay is really just a matter of logic (and often luck). It's the story and characters. The Phoenix Wright series (the two chapters I've seen so far) totally embody the often - overlooked strength of storytelling and character depth in making and interactive adventure come alive and create an emotional attachment with the player.

I cheer out loud when I make a breakthrough and catch a witness with a contradiction. I laugh along with Phoenix as he clumsily attempts to stall for time in the courtroom. And I feel the same feeling one gets at the end of a good movie, when you know you are seeing the characters saying goodbye and you wish them well.

I have finished the first two Phoenix Wright games and am on to the third one, Trials and Tribulations, which promises an epic conclusion to the trilogy. I assume it's that because the fourth game just released is called Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney, and focuses on an entirely different lawyer.

As a gamer with a quirky sophistication developed over decades of trying every different form of interactive fiction and adventure, I am so glad to see companies like Capcom take a chance on something like this. Since there have been three sequels released in the last year, I can only assume it turned out to be a smart business decision on their part. Hopefully , more are on the way.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Progress Report On What I'm Playing

Here's a brief progress report on the games I'm playing. I keep a list of "What I'm Playing" to the left, but rarely do I note where I'm at in those games. So here we go:

No More Heroes (Wii) - I'm playing in "Sweet" mode, which I assume is easy, and I've fought my way up to the second place in the ranking of assassins. Presumably, that means I have one more assassin to take care of and I win. However, given the number of twists that this game has thrown at me so far, I suspect that there will be more than just that one fight before the story is told. I'm still having a lot of fun with this title, and am at about twenty hours into it.

Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Justice For All (DS) - I decided to pick up where I left off in this game many months ago, in the middle of a very complicated case. Anyone who has done this can probably understand how hard it is to get back up to speed. You basically have to talk to everyone again to remind yourself where you left off at, and most importantly where you were stuck at.

Last night, I made a breakthrough and have progressed into what I think is the last day of court for this case (the Juan Corrida murder). Even if I finish this case soon, there are probably one or two more left in Justice For All, and then it's on to Trials and Tribulations, which I picked up last fall. And if I finish that, the next chapter - Apollo Justice Ace Attorney - came out TODAY. I never imagined one sequel to the amazing Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney, but in the last year there have been THREE.

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii) - I'm stuck at 119 (out of 120) stars. I've beaten Bowser and gotten 14 out of the 15 purple comets. The last one is insane though - tougher than any boss fight or previous level. The challenge is to gather 100 purple coins across a giant 8-bit pixel version of Luigi. Each floor panel / pixel either flips when you land on it, or disappears entirely, never to return. You've got three minutes to get 100 of the 150 purple coins available and return to the starting point. The most I've gotten before falling to my doom is about 50.

Ultima Online (PC) - I'm hardly playing at all right now. I just don't feel like character development, resource gathering, or equipment / gold farming. Hopefully the big epic event they've been hinting at will get me back into the game.

Paper Mario (Nintendo 64 via Wii Virtual Console) - I'm playing this casually when I've got the time. Like Paper Mario : The Thousand Year Door, which I beat on the Gamecube a few years ago, it's actually a lot of fun for a turn-based RPG. The problem is, it's quite a step back from Thousand Year Door and the awesome Super Paper Mario for the Wii, so it's tough to really get juiced about it.

And that's it. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

No More Heroes

After much anguishing over the idea, and much research of various internet reviews of the game, I took the plunge and picked up No More Heroes for the Wii. I can safely say after about six hours into it (much of it just exploring the decent-sized in-game city of Santa Destroy), I am quite happy with this decision.

The game at its core is an hack and slash game, with the player chopping though henchman as Travis Touchdown, an assassin working his way up the charts like a Rupert Holmes single in 1980. The style of the game is waaaay out there, and it works, but it really is about as graphically sophisticated as an Atari Jaguar title.

The fun factor, other than the aforementioned exploration of the city (there's not much there, really, I'm just an exploration junkie), is in the combat. The A button slashes, the B button kicks, and holding the Wii remote up or down determines if the action is a high or low hit. Score a few successive hits and you can make a finishing blow by slashing the Wii remote in the direction indicated by an arrow on the screen. Stunned opponents can be finished with some sweet wrestling moves performed by moving both the Wii remote and the nunchuck in tandem in a direction indicated by screen arrows.

There is more depth to the combat than this, of course, and all sorts of bells and whistles. Travis's hotel room serves as a base and allows for changes of costume (mostly in terms of a huge variety of T-shirts either bought or found), playing with a cute pet kitty, watching TV, or other things. Saving the game is done by copping a squat on the porcelin throne. Recharging the beam katana weapon is done by waving the Wii remote left and right, but on the screen Travis makes more of a no-longer-the-master-of-his-domain gesture. I kid you not.

The bosses and other characters I've met so far are all very well done, and the overall package of the game - the fun and challenging combat surrounded by a very quirky world - works really well, and is just the sort of refreshing hardcore game experience the Wii needed. No More Heroes is really a lot of fun, and hopefully a good indication of a much better year in terms of variety for Wii owners.

No More Heroes

It looks like there will be no more episodes of Heroes this spring, as the writer's strike continues without a settlement. It's regrettable, too, since the show had finally picked up some steam towards the end of it's mini-season last fall.

A lot of shows are either gone (Journeyman, most unfortuantely), or are "on the bubble", such as Reaper. We know that Heroes, Chuck, and the new Terminator : The Sarah Connor Chronicles have garnered enough viewers to warrant a return when the strike is through, though.

So please, writers and network dudes - for the good of couch potatoes everywhere - find a middle ground and make it work. Thanks.