Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Beaten : Bully - Scholarship Edition

Tonight I beat Bully : Scholarship Edition for the Nintendo Wii. The ending was very satisfying, although a bit easy.

I cannot praise this game enough. These open-world sandbox games, as they are called, offer a great way to tell a story and build characters, appeal to the explorer in me by offering a huge world with many, many secrets, and create an immersive experience by crafting the world with a vast level of detail, not just visually, but by offering the character so many activities to engage in.

I'm sure a lot of XBox 360 and Playstation 3 owners are going through the same experience right now, as RockStar Games's signature series, Grand Theft Auto, just released it's fourth installment for those systems. Me, I'm not into that theme, really. Bully was offbeat and humorous enough that I could get into it, though.

Different strokes and all that.

After the end credits, Bully opens a new chapter called "Endless Summer" that apparently allows the player to go around and finish any remaining tasks. I love it when games do that - and since I beat the game with only about 76% completed, I'm pretty sure I'll be taking a few summer courses soon.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Everyone Remembers Their First Time

Today was a day I thought would have come about a year ago. Last Christmas, at the very latest. But no, it was today.

This morning, at 8:30 AM, I was at Wal-Mart, doing much of the week's grocery shopping, and as always I took a stroll through the electronics section before heading to the checkout. There, in the Nintendo Wii section, was the usual display case of Wii games. At the bottom of the case was over 8 Nintendo Wii consoles, just sitting there.

No one was camping for them. In fact, there were about eight more Wiis on the cart that the two guys restocking the shelves were using. They were discussing where they should put the additional consoles.

Wiis in the wild. Unclaimed. It was a sight I was wondering if I'd ever see.

Mario Kart Wii Initial Impressions

I picked up Mario Kart Wii last night at midnight, after working a 14.5 hour day.

It was the first time I ever went to one of those GameStop midnight sales, and to my surprise there were about 40 people there, waiting to get their copy of Mario Kart Wii. GameStop, to their credit, handled it like pros and I was on my way home at 12:04.

After a late dinner with Monique, I tried out some 50cc Grand Prix games, to see how the wheel worked. I was able to get the gold the in the first two cups and call it a night, but I could tell that the Wii Wheel was going to take some getting used to.

Today I continued through the last two of the 50cc Grand Prix, seeing all the new tracks, and missing the gold on the last one by one point, thanks to a serious beatdown on the Rainbow Road. I was having some more issues with the Wii Wheel.

There's a track called Maple Treeway, with an autumn motif, and the karts racing along the branches of trees. Without fail, each time I passed a particular point on one of the branches, and attempted to turn left, I simply kept moving forward and went off into the void. There were a few other times when the wheel didn't do what I was trying to do.

So I tried the GameCube controller, and while I found myself getting better control, it seemed that there was a loss of speed, and I fared no better in my scores (again, this is still on 50cc) than I did with the Wheel.

The increase of opponents from 7 to 11 makes a significant difference, and many times I found a first place lead lost to a barrage of overpowered power-ups, of which Mario Kart Wii has more. In one race my approach to the finish line was halted by a POW block, a blue shell, and then a squid ink power-up, and I ended up getting knocked back from first to eighth.

I get the feeling that this Mario Kart will be the most difficult one to master - if I even can. A great online mode awaits, but I need to get a good working knowlege of the tracks and controls before I take the dive and embarass myself with such an endeavor. More reports to follow.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Bully : Scholarship Edition

Humor and social commentary coupled with open-world gameplay have made Bully : Scholarship Edition for the Wii one of those games that I have a hard time putting down. It's a boarding school simulation with lots of fighting, an overarching story, and lots of different objectives and mini-games to chase after.

Players take the role of Jimmy, a tough kid who's been kicked out of other schools and finds himself dropped off at the Bullworth Academy by his indifferent parents. Jimmy finds himself adrift in a school full of different factions - nerds, jocks, bullies, preppies, and greasers - as well as girls - with choices to make about how to behave around them all.

You get to go to class, and each class is a different mini-game unto itself. Music class is a rhythm game using various percussion instruments, and biology is essentially a copy of the Tramua Center games, with various tools being used to dissect all sorts of dead things, rendered in near photo-realism. Art class is strange - it's basically a copy of the old arcade game Qix, where the player sections off parts of the screen to reveal the picture he's painting of the hot art teacher.

Missions help the story unfold, or offer ways to make money. There are vehicles such as a skateboard and bikes to unlock. The bike is especially useful in getting around the surrounding town, which opens up at the start of the second chapter. One of the jobs you can get is that of a paper boy, and again, like the arcade game, you ride around and deliver papers.

There's a huge area to explore around the school and town, lots of hidden places to find, and collection quests to work on along the way. The controls on the Wii work very well, using the motion sensing for some special moves that Jimmy learns from the homeless guy living behind the school. Some of them are hard to train - one move in particular required insanely fast timing, and even after I learned it I've only been able to do it once in battle.

The humor comes from the crazy cast of characters around the school - shy girls you can get to kiss you, alcoholic teachers, a disgustingly exaggerated stereotypical lunch lady, and preppies indignant that you beat their best boxer in the ring (there is, by the way, a great boxing game built into Bully). The cutscenes that let the characters shine are always welcome and enjoyable.

I never thought that I'd want to relive my own school days and teen angst in a videogame, but Bully does it so well that even familiar moments of adolescent awkwardness are fun to resolve in ways that I never got to in real life. There's really so much to see and do in Bully : Scholarship Edition for the Wii that this is one school year that I hope never ends.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Heatwave Interactive Update

It's been awhile since we've heard a peep out of old friends Anthony "SunSword" Castoro and Tim "Mr. Tact" Keating over at Heatwave Interactive, but recently there's been some positive - looking developments out of Austin.

SunSword has posted again on his blog, with news about what the heck Heatwave has been up to since its formation in early 2007, and where they are headed now.

According to him, they've spent the last year "successfully bootstrapping ourselves consulting for an undisclosed three-letter-media company on the East Coast and several other gaming entities". Does that mean that CNN called them up whenever they did a human interest story on MMOs? We'll never know.

Since last fall, though, according to SunSword, they've been raising "a serious round of capital". That's an impressive feat in this economy. Now, the company is looking for a headquarters and is hiring for a number of positions. Other than the aforementioned Mr. Tact, it appears that another former UO team member, tOAD, is also there.

What interests me about all of this? I'm sure there are plenty of ambitious gaming start-ups in the Austin area, right? So what is so fascinating about Heatwave?

At the forefront is SunSword himself. Having met the man face to face twice back in his Ultima Online days, and knowing what he was trying to achieve with the game, I have great confidence that, being unfettered from other people's corporate baggage, he is capable of great things. And I want to see what he comes up with once he gets that chance.

His mission statement, or whatever he calls it (from his Linkedin profile), says it best:

I co-founded Heatwave Interactive on the premise that interactive entertainment is more than a way for young men to combat boredom; games are an important medium that can challenge individuals on multiple levels and tell stories that matter. Stories about ourselves, and stories about people we may otherwise never have the opportunity to understand.
I believe that by providing an environment that fosters not only creativity, but also respect for the individual and the highest of expectations, we can create powerful experiences, and be an example for the rest of the industry.

It almost seems like he has a personal grudge against the established game development power structure, which I share. This era of gaming - where games take huge teams of people and truckloads of money to make - has fostered tighter corporate control of the whole process, which leads to less risk-taking by game companies, and thus less variety in the types of games being offered. And having less variety in the era where we have the greatest game technology available is truly an ironic paradox that I never saw coming back in the 1980s when I first looked ahead.

I hope Mr. Castoro and his team can shake all that up a little, and in the process deliver the types of interactive experiences that I've been hoping for in these times. I think it's a safe bet that they won't turn out a World of Warcraft clone, a Call of Duty clone, or a Mass Effect clone.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Avenue Q

Last Tuesday, one of the managers I'm training at work, just as he was leaving, asked me if I was interested in "these tickets to a show". As he reached out with the tickets, I saw that they were tickets for one the few Broadway musicals I actually wanted to see - Avenue Q. He had gotten them from someone at the home office but was uninterested in the show.

I first heard of Avenue Q awhile back when I stumbled across a YouTube video on a gaming site where on of the show's songs, "The Internet is 4 Porn", was being sung by World of Warcraft characters using emotes.

Knowing that the song as far too clever for WoW players to have made it, I did a search and found out that the song was from Avenue Q. I read about the musical, and quickly forgot it. Then I got those tickets.

Monique gladly agreed to go, since the tickets were free - oddly enough, she had won free tickets a few months ago for another musical, and we enjoyed the show and the night out. It was opening night and a packed hall.

The show was laugh-out loud funny. Avenue Q is a very adult take on Sesame Street, with people and puppets living lives filled with all sorts of modern issues - relationships, career issues, racism - that all flow together seamlessly from song to song. The talented cast delivered great singing and puppetry (the actors walk around on stage with their puppets and perform with them much of the time, other times the puppets hang out of windows).

Musicals usually aren't my cup of tea, but if there were more like Avenue Q, and more opportunities for free tickets, I'd probably go more often.

Beaten : Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney

Today I finished Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney, the fourth and currently final entry in the Ace Attorney series, and like Trials and Tribulations, it had an amazing, epic ending that ties in all the subplots from throughout the game.

The final episode out of the four offered, called "Turnabout Succession", truly feels like the torch being passed between Phoenix Wright, star of the first three games in the series, and Apollo Justice, who headlines this installment. With the case in the fourth episode being strongly connected to the one that ended Phoenix Wright's legal career seven years in the past, the player gets to play as Wright one final time, both in court and in a strange investigation phase that plays out between both eras in a manner that suggests time travel, but isn't.

If you've read my other blog entries about this series, you know how much I've enjoyed these simple point and click adventures. It's been all about the storylines and characters, all so well-crafted that, like a good book or movie, the player is drawn into the experience emotionally.

There are currently no more chapters in the Ace Attorney series planned for the North American DS playerbase, but supposedly a new one is in development in Japan, as well as another game that allows the player to play as one of the prosecutor characters from the series. Since neither of these Japanese games even have a release date yet, it could be a year or two before another Ace Attorney game graces these shores.

But perhaps it's time I took a break from the law. Since my lucky acquisition of Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney back in late December of 2005, I've always been working on one:

Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney - Played 12/28/05 through 2/16/2007, with breaks
Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Justice For All - Played 2/16/2007 through 2/23/2008, with breaks
Phoenix Wright : Ace Attorney Trials and Tribulations - Played 2/23/2008 through 3/19/2008
Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney - Played 3/19/2008 through 4/13/2008

If I really, really miss the experience, there's a Harvey Birdman game out there for the Wii which seems to copy the Ace Attorney games, but according to reviews really waters the challenge level down. Still, it is said to be very funny.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Mario Kart : Generations

In just over two weeks, I'll be playing Mario Kart Wii. Mario Kart is one of my all-time favorite game franchises, and I've been along for the ride from the start. As the awesome - looking Wii version approaches, offering 32 tracks with an all-out online mode, I thought it would be a good time to look back at the previous installments of the series and remember those who've I have had the honor of racing against.

Super Mario Kart - SNES

I got this game shortly after acquiring my Super Nintendo in the fall of 1992, not sure what I was getting into, but completely enthralled nonetheless. The characters, the tracks, the power-ups, and the shortcuts to be discovered made this game an instant classic. And it wasn't just racing - there was a battle mode as well.

I was living alone then, but was joined at the time for the two-player game by good friends Dave Frye and Adam Silverman. We would drink beers, get high, and race for hours. Both of them quickly got as good as I was and we were pretty evenly matched.

Adam and I later enjoyed some even more mind-altering substances to try out the trippy Rainbow Road course, which was just silly. We also made a video of one of our races and edited in the music of the Grateful Dead, in a sort of pre-YouTube YouTube moment. Someday I'll get off my ass and send that VHS tape somewhere to convert it into DVD.

I miss those guys, and I miss those days.

Mario Kart 64 - Nintendo 64

When I got Mario Kart 64 I was living with my good friend Chris Chase, and although his gaming habits were more sports and action oriented, he took to Mario Kart 64 quickly. We had the system set up in the basement den of our apartment. This version had just amazing tracks and, at the time, great graphics.

I had two memory cards full of ghosts, which were time trial races I had run with my best times. These were so good that years later I still couldn't beat them. In some of them, I used the shortcuts on every lap for an impressive score.

We were joined in the awesome four player splitscreen matches by a veritable host of our co-workers - Jeff Shupe, Michael Meija, Matt Hanks, Dan Wesley, Noah Cushwah ( not sure on the spelling there), and possibly several others. Many of this same group were also coming around later that year for Goldeneye 007 sessions.

It was good to have a lot of different people to play against, although I'd always get taken out by Chris using a lightning bolt on Wario Stadium at the huge ramp jump (this move put me back about a third of a lap).

I miss those guys and those days, too. However, I have this game on my Nintendo Wii (via the Virtual Console selection) and still play it from time to time.

Mario Kart - Double Dash - Nintendo Gamecube

At first, I didn't have anyone to play this game against. Once I started dating Monique, though, I found out that she liked Mario Kart games as well, and we played this one quite a bit.

Although I personally didn't like the idea of two characters per kart, I still had a lot of fun with this title. For me the best part was the cup where you can play all sixteen tracks, creating a longer and more enjoyable experience. I've always wanted longer races - either long tracks or the ability to set the race to ten or more laps - in Mario Kart.

Monique and I still play Double Dash from time to time.

Mario Kart Super Circuit - Game Boy Advance

My least favorite of the Mario Kart series, Super Circuit offered the same graphics as the SNES version, and even some of the same tracks, but seems to control a bit sluggishly. I picked up this one late, though, and never really got into it much.

Mario Kart DS - Nintendo DS

This was a great Mario Kart game, bringing forth much better graphics and finally, online play. There was one problem, called snaking. Snaking involves doing powerslide mini-turbo boosts all around the course, which is usually wide enough to do so, to gain extra speed.

The online mode was absolutely ruined by this. I always felt that Mario Kart should be about racing and combat, not repeated carpul-tunnel inducing moves. I could snake fairly well, and did it sometimes, but it left the experience so hollow that I rarely play the DS version online anymore.

So, this one I got to play against the world, but the world kind of sucked. Hopefully the world of racers that opens up with Mario Kart Wii will be a little better. Supposedly, the snaking is much more limited. In two weeks, I'll find out.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney

I'm on the last episode of Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney, and it's gotten very difficult. But, this last case is starting to have that epic feel that the last case in Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney : Trials and Tribulations did. There's a larger meta-plot going on behind the scenes and I can't wait to see how it all ties together.

There are several innovations in Apollo Justice, it being the first Ace Attorney game designed for the DS. The three Phoenix Wright games were all designed for the Game Boy Advance over in Japan, and were ported to the DS here. Some of these innovations turned up in the first one, in a bonus episode specifically designed for the DS game.

These innovations include filling in footprints with plaster and taking a casting, dusting for fingerprints, and using an X-ray scanner to read letters inside an envelope, all done with the touch screen. In addition, Apollo Justice wears a bracelet that gives him the ability to "perceive" subtle things about people giving testimony - nervous habits and the like that give away the fact that they're hiding something. Using this ability creates some psychedelic effects on the screen around the witness that are just amazing.

Also amazing in the third case was a fully animated video segment of a singer's performance, used as evidence, but so very well done that I had to watch it a few extra times. It's not that this series needed any new features or innovation - I would probably keep playing them if it was just more of the same - but it's welcome nonetheless. Hopefully future games featuring Apollo Justice (one is rumored to be in the works in Japan) will continue with these types of advances.

What A Difference A Month (In Ohio) Makes

Don't you just hate it when you go to one of your favorite gaming blogs or web comic blogs only to find that, instead of blogging about the latest game or geek news, the author is rambling on about their boring - ass personal life like you really give a shit?

I know I do. That being said, let me drive away the few readers I have by doing the exact same thing.

Less than a month ago, Columbus, Ohio was buried under a huge blizzard and its residents huddled in their homes as the city was virtually shut down. Today it was sunny and warm in the high sixties and everyone was outside in shorts and tee shirts, with children playing and folks washing thier cars.

It was my day off after a fifty-plus hour week (I picked up a second part-time job at night a few weeks back), and while I was looking forward to making some progress in Apollo Justice : Ace Attorney, I only played about a half an hour before deciding to enjoy the warm weather by washing my car, inside and out. After an Ohio winter it needed it.

One thing you never do in Ohio is declare winter "over". Especially in early April. Sure, the forecast for the next week shows all 60s and 70s for highs, but after living here four decades I know damn well that the weather can still shift back to winter with little notice. I've seen snow as early as September and as late as June in Ohio.

Still, it really felt like spring today. Not just the weather, but the collective mood of everyone around me. Plus, there are new episodes of Battlestar Galactica on the air, and a friggin Iron Man movie is less than a month away.

If anyone's left reading this, fret not. Mario Kart Wii comes out in three weeks and you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be blogging about that one.