Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Losing my mojo

I've lost my gaming mojo lately. From being the kind of guy who could spend evenings honing a Master League squad in PES or having a blast of Luminous Arc after a night out, I've entered a phase in which a day can feel complete without playing a video game. It's an odd feeling, and it's one that I blame or credit - depending on my mood - on Super Mario Galaxy 2.

I'm not going to criticise a game so close to perfection, more the aftertaste it's left behind. You see, after finding a game that somehow met my astronomical expectations, everything after it has felt lame in comparison. It's like after you've just broken up with your first love, when practically every other human being on the planet seems inferior. Okay, must own up here - SMG 2 was in no way my first gaming love, but the analogy stands. Although I've had some good gaming times since then, not one could hold a candle to SMG 2. The story begins with Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies.

Sin and Punishment: Successor of the Skies

Gung-ho action games are not for me usually. Memorising enemy placements, having to rely on lightning-quick reactions, no pause for breath between alien attacks - it all seemed like too much bother for what's supposed to be a laid back activity. But something about S & P appealed to me. Maybe it was because it was so different to my usual tastes, or the fact that it was made by Treasure, a developer held in high regard by the gaming community (yep, even customer reviews on Amazon). Anyway, to get to the point, I loved it to begin with. I turned the other cheek to the muddy, last-gen graphics and corny cutscenes, instead treasuring the rapid action and high-adrenaline techno music. Early on, S & P was also armed with nostalgia, as the bullet-hell gameplay and freaky monsters strongly resembled Contra III, the only shoot 'em up I've ever really got into.

You'd think we'd be all set for a Hollywood ending. Alas, I eventually grew tired of S & P. The length of the story mode was my biggest gripe. Only took around 6 or 7 hours to reach the end, which I don't think is good enough. Sure the defence will argue that S & P is solely reliant on replay value in order to realise its true length, but in the current market, in which triple-A releases vie for your attention on an almost weekly basis, it feels like a waste to replay a game you've already beaten.

No, for my definition of a classic, I think of titles that last a few weeks at least, like Ocarina of Time, GTA III and Bioshock. Granted, there are a few exceptions - namely Prince of Persia: Sands of Time - but in the main I like games which make you go on a long and fruitful journey, that take the risk that you'll get bored and lose interest halfway through. That's what I admired about SMG 2 - the scope and ambition - and that's what I found lacking in S & P.

Maybe my expectations were set too high.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Wii football: more Gary Neville than Lionel Messi

I really am a doomed prophet. Little over a week ago did I big up the World Cup, banging on about how it was competing with Mario - my first summer love, circa 2010 - that Argentina and Brazil, in particular, were brilliant to watch. Well, sadly, the gold has since turned to shit. Argentina have gone. Brazil have gone. The Spanish, with the exception of David Villa, are yet to fire.

I need a new football game to compensate for this drop in quality, but I've recently sold my Xbox and am hardly the biggest fan of the Wii's PES and FIFA offerings. Too slow and tactical for me, they play like RTS titles rather than the sports simulations that I pine for. And that's leaving aside the cold, hard fact that the graphics are more 'Gary Neville' than their Xbox/PS3 'Messi' counterparts.

So no football games for me for the time being then. Given the extent of my previous sports-games addictions, I should greet this as a plus. I won't though. My PES/FIFA adulation is too far gone for that.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Mario or football?

I was only joshing when I declared that, with Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the horizon, the World Cup meant nothing to me. Because it does: I like following my team, the troughs and peaks of a season; I like the hysterical reactions to our national side, however tragic the final diagnosis might be. And the World Cup is almost as rare an event as a new Mario game anyway. I should savour it. But there's one problem. I'm all about the aesthetics me, so when something fails to entertain, I'm ruthlessly disloyal.

The first round of this World Cup was especially hopeless. Negative tactics, star players failing to ignite; all capped off, of course, by a painfully mediocre first turn-out from England. It was pretty tirgid stuff. Meanwhile Mario had grabbed me by the coat-tails. He wouldn't let go, the bastard. Controlling Yoshi, rendered in 3D properly for the first time, was wonderful; the levels were packed with new ideas; and the music was suitably foot-tapping - witness Puzzle Plank Galaxy if you don't believe me. It was perfection. I wasn't ashamed to shout my love from the rooftops. Well, kinda: Mario-love at 23 years of age isn't the coolest thing in the world. Anyway, two weeks ago Mario was giving the World Cup a right kicking.

Thankfully, though, its entertainment value has since picked up. Even England vs. Germany had a sort of sadistic joy: the first goal, in particular, was one in a million. An assist direct from the 'keeper - laughable. Terrible and wretched too, of course, but that's the obvious, all-too easy reaction. It's always better to laugh than cry.

So thanks to England's shameful exit, Brazil's continuing improvement, and Argentina's resurgence under Maradona, the World Cup is back in my good books. But it's still no match for Mario.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Mario Ga Ga

I have a reason to be cheerful this summer thanks to the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2. Forget football, that game will be my everything mid-June. But there's one problem. I have a Xbox, not a Wii. I would have to repurchase a Wii to get my hands on Mario Galaxy 2. I have never repurchased a console. This is a big issue. And it makes me wonder: why has it come to this? Why am I so ready to ditch the Xbox after only a year, to return to a console that I've lost faith in once already?

My pondering begins with my present issue: my birthday is just around the corner and yet I'm eyeing up zero, zilch, nothing. This is strange. No matter the year, I'm always able to pencil in a specific game for birthdays and holidays. Sometimes it's a new release, sometimes it's a game that's passed under my radar.

Here at the start of the new decade, though, I have squat. For all of its rave reviews, Bioshock 2 still seems an unnecessary sequel, while Mass Effect 2 sounds like it would suck 50 hours-plus out of my life. And 30 hours is my limit. I had pencilled in Red Dead Redemption but that's sadly been pushed back.

My current console lacks originality. FPS, FPS, FPS. I like shooting and the old ultra-violence as much as the next man, but not in every single title. I have other issues too with the 360, those which many modern gamers may disagree with. Gamer scores and achievements and avatars eh? They add nothing to the gameplay. And downloadable content? That's just a cynical ploy to make you pay for material which should have been included in the original product.

Anyway, I'm feeling all cynical now, so I'm going to finish on a lighter note.

Summer day, June 2010. Postman approaches front door with a slim, rectangular box in his hand. I'm like a dog, buzzing around in the hallway, waiting for him to poke it through the letterbox. The box is squeezed through and then hits the floor. Before I rip it open with my bare hands, I know what it has to be. Super Mario Galaxy 2. The finest example of my favourite genre, made by the best developer in the world. I feel like a kid again.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Room 101: 3D Sonic

The transition from 2D to 3D was a logical step for most, allowing developers to expand their visions and to create more dynamic worlds. Nintendo did this effortlessly with their mascot, Mario, while the likes of Rockstar have flourished with the help of this extra dimension. The GTAs are notable benefactors: though they sold well enough before, it was only with the new technology that they became genre-defining - and in turn almost single-handedly created the sandbox genre. Other developers, however, were not so adaptable to this brave new world. In particular, Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast saw the once untouchable Sega begin to lose their relevance. Over a decade ago it set a rot in motion which is still in need of curing.

It was all so simple back in the 90s. Mario was the undisputed king of platformers with little if any competition. Then Sonic burst onto the scene. Sonic offered a different brand of platformer: lightning-quick, with rollercoaster-like levels, and an infectious Japanese techno beat. Quite simply, the blue hedgehog had a cooler vibe than Mario, and this allowed Sega to dominate the teenage end of the market. As the years passed and Sonic's popularity showed no signs of waning, Sega did not re-invent the wheel for the sequels that followed - they did not need to. But with the release of the Nintendo 64 and its flagship title, Super Mario 64, the gaming world was changing. Nintendo blew people away. This was Mario, no doubt, but this was also the next step in video games. Suddenly Sonic and his flat vistas were no longer enough. Sega had to react with a 3D world of their own. In terms of game develoment, it was arguably their most costly mistake.

This is not to say that Sonic Adventure - the eventual rival to Mario 64's throne - was a bad game. It was decent in its own right, but - and this is the dealbreaker - it was just not Sonic any more. The loop-the-loops were still intact but they were broken up by distinctly un-Sonic features, such as talking and, more to the point, walking. No longer was each level a visceral escape for the senses. So long the perfect foil for Mario's ponderous pace, Sonic had lost his mojo.

The saddest thing about Sonic Adventure is not the title alone, more its effect on the franchise. Since its release, and in spite of ever-loudening calls from Sonic fans, Sega have been reluctant to turn back to 2D. The times they have been willing to go back, they have been successful: the 2D sections of Sonic Unleashed were widely celebrated by fans and journalists alike; it was only the werewolf half of the game, in 3D no less, that proved to be the game's downfall.

As time goes on, maybe Sega will return Sonic to the glory he deserves. But this will take some time, and so it hastens me to cry once more: what if Sonic Adventure had never existed?

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Room 101: Halo

These aren't the best of games, these aren't the worst of games. No, the following titles have put a blight upon video games, laying down laws and setting trends that we can never turn back on. Isn't it a shame that shit sells?

Part 1:

Topping my list is Halo and all of its ungainly offspring. Fair's fair, I'll give credit to the first game: while it was as generic as the later titles, at least its single-player campaign was well-made. That, however, is no excuse for its sequels, which have gradually become worse and worse, leading to the mess of Halo 3. Usually you can tell the overall quality of a video game - as with most forms of art - from its opening. Think of Super Mario 64 and the playground of Peach's castle or the atmospheric opening to Metal Gear Solid 2 - they both set stunning foundations for what's to follow. Halo 3, on the other hand, has to have one of the worst opening levels ever made - for a high-profile title anyway. You are plonked down in a jungle and then must lead out men across a confusing, linear path. It all looks the same. The developer, Bungie, knew this. That's why there's an arrow leading in the right direction at every turn. Half-decent games do not resort to this. Either it is clear where you have to go next, or you are provided with a realised world to explore (see Fallout 3 or Bioshock for examples of the latter). Thankfully, Halo 3 does improve, ironically by making the second level like every dark, narrow and gray series of corridors you've ever seen in a sci-fi shooter; and resulting levels stick to this template. By its end, I did not loathe the game (it's average, nothing more), but I was pretty critical of the hype and of its overall effect on the industry.

Only a generation ago, first-person shooters were a welcome genre. They gave you a visceral thrill that's hard to achieve with an an over-the-shoulder perspective. And they were always innovative: GoldenEye for stealth and multiplayer; Half-Life for a compelling story; Metroid Prime for its atmosphere. Now, though, you see a market flooded with legions of by-the-numbers FPSs, eating up the talents of developers forced to make games that will sell. It may be slightly unfair to solely accuse Halo for this disappointing aspect of modern gaming, but there is no doubting its influence. Its continued success - despite its generic and flawed gameplay - has seeped into the heads of the money men and most disappointingly, the minds of gamers. Before, the industry leaders were the Marios and the Sonics of this world. What a shame that Halo is the new bench mark - a game without the character of an italian plumber, or a hedgehog who defies the laws of nature.

We can be thankful then, that Bioshock 2 is around the corner, along with progressive titles like Heavy Rain. The day is coming, the day when Master Chief no longer dictates...

Friday, 21 August 2009

Ashes Cricket 2009: The advert

What a day of cricket. Like most of this series, it came out of nowhere. You could say Stuart Broad's display today had been hinted at at Headingley with his six wicket haul, but no one could have predicted the Aussies' collapse. While I was watching it though, I had a Charlie Brooker-style epiphany: the advert for Ashes Cricket 2009 on the Wii is pathetic.

Now, video game ads don't tend to be great pieces of art. When they try to be, they end up at worst offensive and at best embarassing. Ashes Cricket comes under the latter bracket. In it we witness three lonely-looking men waiting for their team mates at a local cricket club. But where are their teammates? The following scene reveals twenty sweaty, exuberant men playing Ashes Cricket on the Wii, necks craned towards the TV. Why don't they just step outside and pretend they're budding Flintoffs for real, seen as they're all padded up for it? Nope, they'd rather have a session on the Wii. As an avid gamer myself, I wouldn't be so dismissive if the game looked decent - I know only too well that a good translation of a sport can be just as rivetting as the sport itself (witness early PES as an example). But Ashes Cricket? Nah. The character models are positively demonic for starters; lazy photoshops that have been thrown in at the last minute.

I should be grateful. I do see where they're going with it. But from the looks of it, I'd prefer sticking with the lonesome men outside rather than the sweaty morons. Still, it could be worse: