Category Archives: Games

Games We Play

Here’s a beautiful video about the games we play, or at least used to play, back when we were kids, when we were bored and didn’t have anything to do but use our imaginations.

It’s by Ian Bennett, as part of his Follow the Foot project. See more of his stuff here.

GameStop Vs. Amazon: The Customer Experience

I recently bought a videogame from GameStop. Then I bought one from Amazon. What follows is an account of the customer experience provided by both companies.

One of them is an exercise in convenience. The other requires such extreme mental fortitude that, to prepare, I have to slay a dragon and bathe its viscera before I can build up the strength to withstand it. See if you can tell which one is which.

Buying a game from GameStop

I drive to the store and go in.

The clerk greets me and asks if he can help me.

“I’d like a copy of Xenoblade Chronicles.”

“No problem. Are there any other games releasing this year you’d like to preorder?”

“No, thanks.”

“Have you heard about The Last Story?”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with the game.”

“Do you want to preorder it?”

“No, not right now.”

“Because you’re buying Xenoblade, so you’re probably a big RPG fan, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well, have you heard about Pandora’s Tower?”

“Yes, I’m aware of the whole situation with those games being ported over from Japan based on customer demand.”

“Yeah, so If enough people buy Xenoblade and The Last Story, then they’ll probably bring Pandora’s Tower over, too.”

“Yeah.”

“So do you want to preorder The Last Story? It’s only five bucks, and it secures you a copy.”

“No, not right now.”

“Okay, are you a member of our Power Up Rewards program?”

“No, and I’m not interested.”

“If you join you get lots of great perks and bonuses, like extra money on your trade-ins and…” (he continues in this manner for some time). “So would you like to join the rewards program?”

“No, thank you.” By this point I’ve been standing at the counter holding my credit card for about five minutes.

“Okay, you can swipe your card.”

I swipe my credit card, slide it into my wallet, and put it away.

He asks to see my credit card and drivers license.

I fish my wallet out of my pocket, open it, hand over the cards.

He stares at them for a few seconds, inspecting them for god-knows-what, even tilting my license to verify that the hologram on it is legit.

He hands them back, along with the game in a bag.

I speed-walk out the door, wanting to get far away as fast as possible.

Buying a game from Amazon

I type the name of the game into the search field.

I find it immediately, and notice that it costs $10 less than the retail price.

I click the “Buy now with 1-Click” button.

Two days later it arrives at my doorstep.

Dead Space Isn’t Fun

Dead Space, the well received 2008 shooter about slicing up aliens in space, is not a fun game.

Technically it’s very impressive. It’s got big budget graphics, immersive audio, nail-biting atmosphere, lots of gameplay variety, and plenty of cool set pieces. So how’d they screw it up? Several ways, but the most joy-leeching of the bunch is that the game punishes you for doing the very thing that it forces you to do: shooting aliens. It’s a game at odds with itself.

Let’s back up a second. The story line puts you in the gravity boots of a mute engineer who’s trapped on a space ship filled with psychotic aliens. The aliens’ limbs are their weak points, so shooting off their arms, legs, claws, and tentacles causes extra damage. You’re discouraged from shooting the trunks of their bodies in two ways: the game either passively punishes you by requiring a lot more shots to bring them down, or actively punishes you by doing something like breaking open their bodies to release a colony of tiny, hard-to-kill spider aliens.

So by a very deliberate design decision, the game urges you to shoot at the flailing limbs of aliens that are often rushing at you quickly and en masse. Pinpoint accuracy is required. And since the pace of the game is usually very hectic, normal human beings pushing buttons on a controller will miss more shots than they nail.

Everything I’ve described so far represents solid game design. This could easily be a very fun gaming experience with a reasonable difficulty curve. Unfortunately, the developers screwed it up by being stingy with ammo.

Shooting at the flailing limbs of shrieking aliens while they try to rip you apart is challenging, intense, and fun. Worrying about running out of ammo while doing this is still challenging and intense, but it’s definitely not fun. It’s a step beyond reasonable difficulty and a step into “why am I even playing this game?” territory. It brings the whole experience down.

It’s kind of like if Super Mario Bros. made you run around collecting “jumps” before you could leap over pits or hop on enemies. By being stingy with bullets, Dead Space withholds an element that’s essential to the particular kind of gameplay it sets up. You lose something precious every time you pull the trigger, but you’re required to pull the trigger all the time.

The developers could have done several things alleviate this frustration. First, they could have given players plenty of ammo to make up for all the missed shots they’re sure to pop off. Failing that, they could have equipped you with some kind of chainsaw-like weapon to chop off alien limbs in hand-to-hand combat–a more dangerous but suitable backup method of making kills if you run out of bullets. At the very least, they could have set the game up so you could flee from most enemy encounters if you run out of ammo. They did none of these things.

That’s not all that’s wrong with the game. You’re also shorted on health packs, credits, and the power nodes that allow you to upgrade your equipment. The size of your personal inventory at the start is laughably small. The storyline is an open fire hydrant of cliche, and just about every level requires backtracking, something I thought gamers and developers determined long ago was a major drag and agreed to avoid.

But the biggest fun-suck is item shortage. I’m sure the reason the developers chose to go this route is because they couldn’t decide whether they were making a shooter or a survival horror game, so they made something in between. They brought in the gameplay mechanics and enemy frequency of a shooter, and the item shortage and atmosphere of a survival horror game. But Dead Space is a shooter at heart. Putting a horror atmosphere in a shooter works. Being stingy with items doesn’t.

So what we end up with is a pretty good game buried under bad design decisions. Maybe Dead Space 2 will fix these issues, but I probably won’t care to find out.

Retro Gaming

nintendo-snes-controller-2

In a fit of nostalgia/stroke of genius, I decided to set up a retro gaming station in my basement.

The basement is unfinished, so it’s basically a room the size of a small skating rink with a concrete slab for a floor and the chill of winter creeping in through the walls. Prior to starting my project, much of this floorspace was occupied by boxes of random crap my wife and I hadn’t touched since we moved in, plus a few noisy appliances and the cats’ litter box.

To start with, I cleared off an 11′ by 17′ section of floor by shoving all the boxes into the far corner of the basement, where they impede the path to the breaker box, and where they’ll probably sit until we move again. Then I dragged a semi-broken entertainment stand into the clearing, pushed it against the wall and, with great physical effort, planted the last CRT television in the world on top of it. Next, I wheeled over an armless desk chair and looked with pride on an entertainment station fit for a hobo. All it needed was some game systems.

The first console my family purchased was an Atari 2600. This was back in the ’80s, and even though I don’t retain many clear memories until around the time Ducktales was on TV (the early ’90s), I remember enjoying games like Vanguard, Tutankhamun, Missile Command, Yar’s Revenge, and Frogger. But since the Atari was rightfully owned by my older brother, he took it with him when he moved out.

Next we got a Nintendo, the system that won my heart and set me on a path to lifelong gamerdom (and probably obesity). The NES was my family’s main system through the Ducktales era, so I have far more fond memories of playing classic Nintendo games than I can put down here. Suffice it to say that I still remember the special powers of all the animal buddies in Little Nemo: The Dream Master, and to this day the Bubble Bobble theme song pops into my head at random times. Unfortunately, the NES was well on its way toward crapping out when we sold it in a garage sale about 15 years ago.

Several years later, I played Super Mario World at my buddy’s house and knew with absolute certainty that I had to have a Super Nintendo of my own. So I saved up my paper route money and bought one, despite my dad’s complaints that I should buy American-made products. Since the Japanese invasion hasn’t happened yet, I’ll call it a good move. Between Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, Super Metroid, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, Super Castlevania IV, Street Fighter II, Super Mario Kart, Super Punch Out, Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, and the Final Fantasies, the SNES is probably MY FAVORITE GAMING SYSTEM OF ALL TIME. (Congrats, SNES–you get a ribbon).

After the 16-bit era, I, along with many others, gave up on Nintendo to enter the wonderful world of CD gaming with the Sony PlayStation. This would turn out to be a mostly ho-hum system with only a handful of stand-out games, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I suspect the reason it never blasted into the stratosphere of awesomeness is because developers were still figuring out how to put one polygon next to another to create fun 3-D worlds full of exciting 3-D action. Still, the console that brought us Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Street Fighter: The Movie can’t be all bad. (Just kidding about that last one).

I must have liked the PlayStation well enough at the time, though, because I bought a PlayStation 2 the day it was released. This turned out to be a terrific system, one I still played occasionally for years after getting my Xbox 360. And while we’re on the subject of current-gen systems, I’ll note that I’ve since ended up with a PS3 and a Wii as well. Also, I’m a huge fan of the Nintendo DS and, of course, iOS devices.

If you weren’t taking notes, the gaming systems I still have in my possession are the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and PlayStation 2. And since the PS2 is backwards-compatible with PS1 games, the systems I set up in my basement gaming station are the SNES and PS2. Also, somewhere along the way I ended up with a hacked Xbox that has every NES and Genesis game on it, so I set that up down there, too.

My goal was to create a space to replay the games I love–the Castlevanias, Zeldas, Marios, Metal Gear Solids, Jak and Daxters, and the like–as well as to finally play the games for those systems I’ve bought but never finished. And it turned out to be just as awesome as I’d hoped–except for one thing: I’ve learned that spending any significant amount of time near a litter box is a bad, bad idea.

Nowadays, when my wife comes home from work, I can often be found down in the basement, in front of a 24-inch CRT television, clacking away at an SNES or PS2 controller, while my current generation systems gather dust underneath a 52-inch LCD television upstairs.

And as for the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii games I’ve bought but haven’t gotten around to yet? I’m sure I’ll find time for them in, oh, 10 years or so.