Wednesday, May 28, 2014

God of War II Post Mortem

God of War II
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment, America
Developed by Santa Monica Studios
Directed by Cory Barlog

What I liked about God of War was that as brutal and as action oriented the game was, it was just as much intelligent.  The really "great" games on the edge are like that, and the pretenders are easy to spot because you can't fake that kind of thing.  The original God of War made me feel like I was playing this epic mash up of Metroid(once you get to the Tower) and Clash of the Titans, mixed with the closest we ever got to a "Wolverine" like character outside of comics.

I was worried that God of War 2 would not live up to that.  I was wrong on most accounts.

When it comes to story, God of War 2 does increase and better it over part one.  There are several twists and a few foreshadows of what's to come in later games, but it does not forget the past either.  Even though we are firmly planted in what is happening to Kratos now, we get some resolving of story threads from the first one.  Kratos even confronts several of the enemies he's faced in his past, including an enemy he robbed of a great future.  On top of that, we are presented with Kratos as not only the godslayer, but the mythbuster as well.  It is really really cool that they got Harry Hamlin to reprise his role as Perseus from Clash of the Titans.

The level design is the top of its genre.  Not only are the puzzles satisfying, but several were of types I had not seen before in a game.  While the world did not feel so much like a Metroid, the world was very much larger and things did interconnect to each other as time went by.  The boss fights are, again, the top of the genre, with none of them repeating.  They even resisted the temptation of redoing the Minotaur(the best boss from part one) and instead stuck with making new bosses each and every time.

Gameplay is still rock solid, though this time there are more creatures that can interrupt Kratos when he's going nuts and swinging those blades around everywhere.  Instead of 1 sub-weapon, there are several now, though I did not like any of them nearly as much as the sword from Part 1; I stuck with Kratos' main blades the entire game.  Magic has also been redone, though again I kind of chose the Cronos stuff and stuck with it.  There is a new time slow mechanic that is really fun, and is the basis more for puzzles than for fighting.  The game also separates into these mini-games at times where the play is different than from the main game.  These segments are memorable, and the Pegasus one is the most enjoyable and impressive of them.

The HD remake that I played was flawless, and just like with part one, looks to have improved immensely.  I never spent a lot of time with part 2 on the PS2, but I played through part 1 a couple of times, and the HD remake of part 1 only enhanced the game, never took away.  The cameras are repositioned, the textures are tightened up, and the frame rate is rock solid locked at 60 frames instead of dipping below 30 on the PS2.  There is no reason not to play the HD versions over the original, it is a vast improvement in every way.  The only "jarring" part is that the cutscenes are many times still done in low resolution, so many times the cutscenes look worse than the actual game play segments.(the picture is of the God of War 1 remake)

They pretty much knew they were getting a part 3.  When God of War 2 came out, they were showing it at E3 alongside Playstation 3.  God of War 2 was the Playstation 2's swan song, God of War was going to be on the PS3 eventually, so they finish this one with a cliffhanger.  Luckily you can buy God of War 1, 2, 3, and the PSP prequels for 30 bucks and get all the story(Ascension is a prequel as well).

Basically it is what every big blockbuster in Hollywood believes a sequel should be: the same as the first but more more more.  While that kind of sucks in the world of RPG's, its pretty apt in the world of Kratos and leaves a satisfying experience.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Virtual System

When people say "8-bit" they generally mean the Nintendo Entertainment System.  Unlike almost any other time in history, that era is the only era dominated so much by one system.  People have a pretty good idea of what "8-bit" is supposed to sound like, and also what "8-bit" is supposed to look like.  This is tied into several features that eventually changed with the next generation.  It is apparent in most screenshots that these games are tied together some how.

When it comes to why the "16-bit" is different, the obvious answer is that there were 2 systems that dominated the era.  This is true, but there's another; expansion.  In the life of the SNES, the developers convinced Nintendo to let them expand the game's abilities by adding special chips to the cartridge that were basically upgrades to the SNES.  The Capcom chips and the FX chip all augmented how their games looked.  Suddenly you had non-pixel based art inside games that could scale and render wire frames and eventually 3-D environments.  I touched on why the 16-bit era does not have unified music in another post of mine, here.  The gist of it is that the SNES used fully digital sound instead of being its own synthesizer unit.  Developers were able to digitize actual musicians playing instruments instead of trying to approximate them using a sound wave manipulator.

What I would love to do is bring back that feeling of community that the Nintendo Entertainment System had brought.  Is it just for nostalgia?  Probably.  Systems get better when there's more people battling it out.  I do not want a unified current gen platform.  I just think it would be really cool if someone came up with a set of sound resources, created a game engine standard that had its own "on purpose" flaws, and its own "on purpose" limitations, and then got a lot of indie developers to make games for this virtual system.

I think it could lead to some really cool occurrences.  What if one developer's sound guy just blows everyone away at their programming of the synths, and they ask him to come and do music for their indie game?  Well that sounds like the cool old days of 10 people teams makes NES games.  Also, I'd love people pushing the limit of the standard and we end up getting the the screen flicker of the old games, but someone uses it to make it a "feature" in a game, maybe a boss has to stay hidden during certain conditions.  It seems like a cool "blinking" boss, but its actually freeing up resources for some cool effects.

The standard would be pretty simple and so developing for it would be easy enough so that entire game jams brought up around the standard would be doable in a relatively small amount of time.  Maybe switch it up and have teams be jumbled and mixed and matched to switch things up.  With a common standard you can switch pixel artists and coders among teams and still have working teams because everyone is on the same standard.

I'm sure the standard would not last very long, and we might only get a handful of games worth playing, but I think its worth the potential pay off.  I'd love for the indie community to have a new "Nintendo" experience completely artificially created for the soul purpose of seeing how today would react to the limitations of the "8-bit" era that actually created the entire feel of the "8-bit" era.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Sound of an Era: Sound Chips

The term "8 bit" is different from the later generations of gaming.  No other generation has such a singular meaning when it comes to "8 bit".  If you were to say "16 bit", well you have several ideas that come to mind, and even though there's really 2 options for 16 bit, it muddies the area of nostalgia to the point that you have to make a distinction.  Even later, 32 bit, you have lots of options and then you also have the N64 thrown in there(hint: it wasn't 64 bit).  Today I want to talk about an aspect of "8 bit" that you may not realize contributes to its unified "feel" among its games:  Its sound.

Think about the big games of the day; Contra, Mario, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, Mega Man.  Somewhere in those memories are probably the music you heard.  Now, think about the music in your top games... and realize that they all pretty much have the same sounds and effects, just arranged differently.  That's a kinship in gaming that does not run through into the later generations.  The Nintendo had a sound chip in it that everyone used as a common source, and it tied all the games of the era together.

The sound chip inside it had its set of blips and beeps, and the games issued commands of what order they were played in.  Let me put it another way.  With digital, you can record a wide variety of instruments, orchestras, and bands.  You are only limited by reality and sample quality.  The Nintendo Entertainment System shipped with a pre-packed band that you could not change.  All games had the same guitar, bass, and drums that all the others had.  Starting with the SNES, music went digital.  Music was pre-recorded, digitized and played back at a later date, much like how MP3's work.  Your Nintendo Entertainment System was an actual music instrument playing live for you.

DJ culture in Japan and Korea is huge, and their forefathers are the game composers from this era of gaming with sound chips.  In that area you will not only find "8 bit" synth masters, but also "16 bit" because the Sega Genesis also used a sound chip instead of a digital system.  The "west" culture is awakening to the sound, but its old hat over there, where the actual composers of games of the era are producing music in the clubs.  Today in the west, we are modifying old NES's and Gameboys to be used live in synths.  This too has been going on for a long while in Korea and Japan, where these systems(with the Sega Genesis) were actually pretty powerful for this purpose, and very cost effective compared to dedicated synthesizers in the 80's and early 90's.

Our gaming generation eras are not as distinct any longer.  It is hard to pin down what generation a game is from because there is such a wide berth of capabilities between game systems, and then with the bit-perfect recreation of any music imagined into digital format, you can't pick an era by its music either.  With the inclusion of millions and millions of colors, and the virutally limitless resources game makers can choose from to make games, our new eras of games just don't have that "we're all a part of a club" era like the 8-bit days.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Iterations or Street Fighter Syndrome

The world of video game journalism thrives on the ability for the "journalists" to be snarky and inject humor into their journalism, that's just the state of things.  One of the ongoing and longest running jokes is about Street Fighter and its numerous editions over the years.  Its an easy joke, and somehow gives the journalist "cred" to say it, with bonus points if they actually think they are the first to make the joke.  

I feel like I have to explain why it makes sense to have updates and iterations to Street Fighter, and indeed other fighting games.  Also maybe even delve into why this is not "Madden-nomics".

A Crowd of Competitors

From the the word "Fight!" Street Fighter was about drawing a crowd of people together to play against one another.  Sure there are CPU controlled opponents and a half baked story in there, but the game is made to be played competitively against humans.  Now, if you have Street Fighter II, Street Fighter III, and Street Fighter IV all done within the span of 3 years, and all of them play different, then you have split your talent pool.  There simply will not be enough people in either to keep it going, and having to keep up with 3 different games just to ensure you have someone to play against is a little nuts.  Let's not forget that if your old version is still popular, you're going to compete against yourself and cannibalize your fans.  Smaller updates means people have no real reason to stay with the past version.  It is close enough that it is painless to move on.  So reason: Iterations don't Split your Fanbase.

Time to Train

Looking at the select screen in Street Fighter IV's later iterations can be daunting, look at the pure number of fighters.  Old players like me had the benefit of learning new characters as they were created.  Instead of learning 50 characters, we got to learn the first 8 in 1991.  Then every couple of years 4 new characters came.  While technique, timing and game change, the way to play each of these characters have stayed consistent.  Still, this is unfair for new players to be expected to know how they all work.  The #1 way to be better at fighting games is to know your opponent, know what to expect from the character.  Because Street Fighter IV came out in 2008, we have had 6+ years to get better at it.  If you spent a few months getting better at it in 2008, it'll only take a little time in 2014 to get your bearings.  So reason: Iterations give you time to learn.


Madden will have you pay $60 a year to get updated rosters and some superfluous game modes.  Looking at Street Fighter IV, you might have payed $60 for the original, but to update the previous to the current will cost you $15 bucks each step up... for a month or so, then drop to $10.  Looking at Call of Duty, another annual series, you actually do not have iterations in the same way.  Call of Duty actually has 2, and now 3 developers creating their games and staggering their release.  It is actually 3 years before the next iteration of that "style" of Call of Duty comes out, and so by then there's enough forgetfulness and new features added that it doesn't feel like an iteration.  So another reason:  smaller alterations means smaller budget, means cheaper updates.

Hell is other People

So what about the genre as a whole, why doesn't everyone else do this?  Let me tell you a little secret:  Unless its a once in a life time game like Killer Instinct, they DO.  Look at what is considered high in competitive circles.  Blaze Blue, Guilty Gear; looks like there are a million of those games, there's really only about 2 of each, the rest were iterations.  King of Fighters?  There's about 3 of those, but for a while every year there was an update.  That doesn't matter, they really only redid the game and made new artwork about 3 times.  What of Mortal Kombat?  Ok, here's our dirty little secret: some games are slightly large iterations even if they are numbered different.  Mortal Kombat 1-3, Tekken 1-3, 5-6, Soul Calibur, these games keep the same core game with updated visuals.  I know they add bells and whistles, and I'm not saying anything bad about them; I love ALL those games I mentioned, but its true still.  Are you good at Tekken 2?  Bet you'll kick ass at Tekken 5.  (3 images of Mortal Kombat, 3 different games... believe it or not)

Its just a simple truth that creating a brand new fighting experience every year, or even every other year, just is not good business for fighting game developers.  It would also suck pretty badly for the players as well.  So yea, its an easy jab to make, being snarky and "clever" making the "I'll wait for Street Fighter Omega Awesome Dash update 12", but you're really just showing idiocy, a small mind, and the lack of knowledge in your field to create original and even topical humor.