Monthly Archives: September 2015

Fall Gaming: MGS V, Lara Croft GO, Super Mario Maker, and more

As of last Wednesday, fall is officially upon us (or at least for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  I can already feel the summer heat beginning to chill, and my mood has turned with it.  Consequently, this will be a somewhat lazy post with lots of rambling and little focused commentary.  When I was much younger, I actually really enjoyed the fall.  Where I grew up, the cool of fall was often a welcome relief from the hot stickiness of summer.  But somewhere along the way I’ve come to find the fall chill to be rather dispiriting, and the older I get, the more I feel like I’ve become a creature of spring and summer.  But the good news is, video games tend to be great in the fall, so at least I have a lot of games to look forward to, and that brightens up my mood.

Metal Gear Solid V

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Right now, I’m deep into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  I actually picked this up on launch day, but only began playing this last week.  Someone told me it was best to play Ground Zeroes first, and fortunately, I had that from PS+ on the PS4.  Man, I knew that game was short, but I don’t think I fully realized that it was that short.  If I did, I would probably have beat it a long time ago.  Unfortunately, I’m playing Phantom Pain through Steam, so I’m not sure if I can pull through my Ground Zeroes save file through Konami’s servers and get the goodies that come with that.

I’m about 10 hours into Phantom Pain and really digging it so far.  I’ll be honest, I lost interest in the MGS series after Guns of the Patriots, a game which I really hated.  That game just wasn’t fun to me.  They were trying to evolve/modernize the gameplay of MGS beyond the original top-down games, but I just don’t think what they came up with was very fun to play.  It also doesn’t help that they took the convoluted ridiculousness of Sons of Liberty and cranked it up by an order of magnitude.  With Peacewalker, they took that new formula and tweaked it a lot (and added Monster Hunter style boss fights), and while I didn’t hate that game, I didn’t like it enough to finish it.  I think finally with Phantom Pain they’ve created a truly modernized MGS game that is really fun to play.  As an open world stealth/action game, the result is something that feels very different from the first 3 MGS games, but it’s so well-designed that I don’t mind that much.

MGSV has gone a long way to restore a lot of my excitement for gaming.  I was really looking forward to Arkham Knight this summer, and the awfulness of the PC version left me really disappointed.  I entertained the idea of buying the PS4 version, but I was just so annoyed about the whole ordeal that I swore off the game completely.  Part of the reason I wasn’t really all that excited for MGSV was because I expected it to launch in a severely broken state, especially around all the calamity that has been going on with the team behind the game.  But this seems to have actually been a very smooth release.  Even more so exciting is how well the PC version has come out.  I don’t think I expected so much from a team that appears so inexperienced with this platform, but the PC version runs very well.  Long story short, this game has gone a long way to restoring some of the faith I’ve lost in major releases.

Lara Croft GO

Lara Croft GO

I just finished Lara Croft GO.  I had heard good things about the game, and the real thing did not disappoint.  I’ve always thought turn-based and grid-based games were a good match for mobile and have been a bit disappointed that more console game translations to those devices don’t use such a structure.  These types of games work so much better with a touch screen interface than games that try to use a virtual controller.  

Lara Croft GO kind of reminds of a GBA game in a way.  Back then handheld gaming was a lot more technologically cruder than console gaming, with handhelds still focusing on 2D gaming and console focusing on 3D gaming.  Consequently, designers had to get really creative with the ways in which they translated their big 3D console games to a 2D handheld game.  Lara Croft GO is similar as it plays nothing like a standard Tomb Raider adventure game, but rather it takes the elements of those bigger games and converts them into a form that is more friendly to the mobile platform.

In Lara Croft GO, essentially all the elements of Tomb Raider, combat, puzzle solving, and platforming, are converted into a turn-based puzzle game with grid-based movement.  Lara takes a turn to move from node to node in a level, and after she moves, the enemies and traps in the level take their actions.  So the turns work sort of like how an old-school roguelike RPG works, the player takes their turn and then the dungeon takes its turn.  Maneuvering Lara safely to the end of a level takes some puzzle-solving.  For instance, if you walk onto a space adjacent to an enemy, they will attack Lara.  But if she’s on an adjacent space that the enemy isn’t facing, she’ll be okay, and in her next turn she can move onto the enemy space and kill it.  Some enemies will chase Lara if she crosses their line of sight, and this is sometimes needed to lure them away from blocking the way forward or to get them to step on a switch that needs to be activated.

I had a lot of fun with Lara Croft GO, and I highly recommend it.  The game is $4.99, but there are no microtransactions needed to win the game.  The only in-app purchases  are additional costumes, but you can also unlock more costumes by picking up collectibles strewn about the game.  In addition, you can pay for “solutions” to each level if you’re stuck, but I never found this necessary.  The later puzzles are far from easy, but it never got frustratingly difficult.  I would say it’s actually one of those rare games that is just “perfect” in difficulty.  And besides, if you do get stuck, I’m sure you can just YouTube the solution rather than paying for it.

Super Mario Maker

SMM6

I continue to play Mario Maker from time to time.  I’m not quite as enamored with it as I was that first week, but it’s become a pick-up-and-play game for me.  The perfect game for when I only have a small amount of time to play.  I haven’t posted any new levels since my last post, but I’m working on two that I hope to finish very soon.  I feel like these might have a little better difficulty tuning than my previous designs, but, of course, I have no way to judge that beyond my own feelings.

One other thing, I’ve started watch this game on Twitch a little.  I’m not usually a big Twitch watcher, but I find that SMM streams often show off little things about designing levels that I didn’t know before.  

Games I look forward to playing 

With the year winding down, we’re starting to get into the big release season for games.  Or at least this used to be the big release season for games.  There’s been a growing trend for a while now of Jan.-Mar. being the big gaming season, since so many games targeted at holiday release get delayed to these months.  

MGS V is mainly on my mind right now, but I hope to play the recently released Until Dawn soon as well.  Going forward I believe the two biggest games for me for the rest of the year are going to be Fallout 4 in November and Just Cause 3 in December.  These three open world games (MGSV, F4, JC3) are probably going to keep me occupied for a long while.  Most big releases right now seem to be really long open world games in the 30-50 hour range.  It’s strange how not that many years ago, during the middle of the 360/PS3 generation, there was some controversy that arose regarding how short games were getting.  Most of the big-name action games were averaging single player campaigns in the 5-8 hour range.  Now it seems like games are starting to get a lot bigger again, like what many of them were in the PS1 and PS2 generation.  Maybe it’s just a sign of how competitive the market for games has become.  If you’re a company wanting to sell games in $60 boxes, then you really need to pack a lot of content in there to stand out and capture gamers’ attention from your competitors.  

I may also pick up Triforce Heroes in October.  I really liked A Link Between Worlds, but I’m not so sure yet about this co-op focused game.  But lately I’ve realized that I’m like a moth to a flame when it comes to Nintendo games, so I have a feeling I’ll probably cave in if it gets decent word of mouth.  There’s also Fatal Frame V on the Wii U.  I first got into the Fatal Frame series last year, and I’m a little curious about this new entry.  But the game has been out for a while in Japan, and I’ve heard no word of mouth about it either way, positive or negative, so I honestly have no idea if it’s going to be worthwhile or not.  It also doesn’t help that it’s a full priced release that’s going to be digital-only, and I’m fairly hesitant to spending that much money on downloadable games from Nintendo’s outmoded online storefront. 

Well that’s all I have to say for now.  Other than the new releases I’ve mentioned above, I plan to play a few older horror games for the Halloween season, but hopefully I’ll be able to write more about that in the future.  

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Guys, Guys. Super Mario Maker. Seriously.

This happens to me too often with Nintendo games:  I know I’m going to like their new games, but I completely underestimate how much I get hooked by them.  Captain Toad, Splatoon, and now the latest example, Super Mario Maker.  I’ve been completely surprised by how much fun I’ve had making levels.  I had reservations initially because, with a series that’s gone on this long, what could users really create for Mario that Nintendo hasn’t done already.  I was wrong, of course.  Designing levels has been one of those things where it causes the time to melt away without me noticing.  While in the level creator, I find there’s just this domino effect in my imagination where new ideas to try are constantly just coming together.  While creating, I’ve yet to reach a point where I’m stumped as to what to add next.  I seem to always find an idea I want to experiment with next.

SMM4

Consequently, as coming up with new plans for a level is rather natural, the challenge of designing a level really lies in executing those ideas in a smooth and fun way.  One of the things that really helps out while building levels is that you can seamlessly transition from editing the level to playing the level.  The smooth, load time-free transition from editing to play testing makes fine tuning a level or experimenting with an idea very accommodating and painless.  I’m not going to pretend like my levels are super well-designed masterpieces, but this aspect of the level designer means that they’re much tightly-crafted and less messy than they could have been.

For those who don’t know, there are four tile sets available in the editor: Super Mario Bros. 1 and 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. U.  Furthermore, you can make levels in specific environments, such as underwater, ghost houses, airships, Bowser castles, etc.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA version) is left out probably because it is mechanically a major divergence from the other games (as it is based around picking up and throwing enemies rather than stomping them).  But there are doors you can place in a level that strongly resemble the doors to subspace in SMB2, so it is represented in a very token way.  

SMM8

I think, of all the tile sets, I find the best looking to be the SMB3 levels.  It may just be my own bias toward this game as my favorite of classic SMB, but the SMB3 pixel art just looks very crisp and sharp in HD.  The SMW visuals are a little busy, I think (although they look very good when playing on the gamepad).  Meanwhile, SMB1 looks a little bit off in HD.  I’m not sure why, but I think it might be because all of the sprites cast shadows on the background.  On the other hand, wall jumping is probably my favorite thing to do in a platforming game.  In Mario Maker, wall jumping is only possible in NSMBU levels (as that mechanic doesn’t exist in older games), so I tend to find myself wanting to design levels in that tile set more than the others.

With all that said, I do have one major complaint with the game.  As far as I can tell, there’s no way to set mid-level checkpoints.  This makes long, elaborate, and challenging levels a little more tedious than they should be, since any time you die you have to repeat the early parts of the level.  As I prefer to make levels that are on the tricky side, I find myself preferring to make them on the short side so they don’t wear too much on the player’s patience.  

Here are my levels so far:

SMM3

Crawling Caverns:  D553-0000-002A-057B

This level seems to have been my most popular so far.  It’s an underground level in NSMBU style, and wall jumping is required to succeed.  In addition, I experimented around with the idea of needing to use giant enemies, such as giant turtle (shells), to clear the way forward.


SMM3

Land Meets Sea:  27CE-0000-0030-E71F

The theme for this level is a normal ground level beset by a lot of traditionally underwater enemies, include flying bloopers (giant and normal size), cheep cheeps shot from cannons, and spiny balls.  As a tip, the player should try to move briskly through this level, or otherwise the screen can pile up with enemies from the cannons at certain points and make it a lot harder than it was meant to be.


SMM7

Hydroelectric:  FE51-0000-0044-A244

This underwater level started off as an attempt to create a tribute to the hydroelectric dam level from the TMNT NES game.  I don’t know if you would realize that from the final level design, but it definitely has a “don’t touch the walls” aspect to it.  I originally wanted to make this in the SMB3 style and use the electric jellyfish in that tile set as the walls, but the result was something that was a bit of a visual overload.  Instead, I used the SMB tile set and spiky balls as the walls instead.


SMM1

Hope you like wall jumping!:  C9AB-0000-004D-5CF4

A NSMBU castle level.  This one was meant to be heavily focused on wall jumping, because as I’ve mentioned, I love wall jumping.  It’s not a masterpiece or anything, but it’s actually probably my favorite I’ve created so far, and it taught me a lot about what Mario is capable of doing under NSMBU rules.  


SMM5

Under, Through, Around, and Over:  1C4B-0000-0027-43EA

This is the first level I designed.  I decided it was fitting to begin with the original SMB.  Ultimately, I think I was trying to be a little too clever with this one, and the result is something that is a little on the messy side.              


The year 2015 marks SMB’s 30th Anniversary, and initially I was a bit concerned that Nintendo wasn’t doing anything special for it.  There was a lot of concern about Super Mario Maker when it was first announced, because Nintendo has historically not been great at doing online systems, and a game like this needs a good online system for users to trade levels.  Last year there was even some confusion coming from Nintendo as to whether gamers would even be able to share levels online or not!  Thus, the end result of Mario Maker has actually been something much more incredible than many other people or myself thought it would be and has been a great way to commemorate Mario’s 30th.

Reflecting on the PlayStation’s 20th Anniversary

In the universe’s ongoing campaign to force me to graciously accept the passage of time, this last week saw the arrival of the 20th anniversary of Playstation’s launch in the U.S.  I’ve written a bit before about my affinity for the original PSX console (See Rayman!), and I can easily call it the console I’ve owned that has been the most memorable to me.

I suppose I was the right age for the PSX when it hit.  It’s strange to think of it today, but gaming (at least on consoles) up until that point had been dominated by a focus on children’s entertainment in the U.S., which contrasts with today’s gaming landscape, where the biggest budget efforts target an 18-35 year old male demographic with high levels of disposable income.  Playstation was the inversion point, as Sony realized that there was an emerging market of young adults who had grown up on video games as children, and there was no reason that they couldn’t continue to be gamers.  Consequently, they put a lot of effort into pushing titles that would appeal to the maturing tastes of these young gamers.  Nintendo, meanwhile, seemingly chose to focus on inducting the newest batch of kids into the world of gaming.

Jet Moto 2Jet Moto is a way faster game than I remembered it.

When these consoles released, I was a few years off from being a teenager, so I could have gone either way here.  Even at the time, I don’t think the “kiddiness” of Nintendo’s games ever really bothered me.  I mean, the N64 did have some really great titles, like Star Fox, Zelda, and Mario Kart.  But in the end, I’m glad that my parents, for whatever reason, picked up the Playstation instead of the N64 that one Christmas.  There were so many great games that resonated with my evolving world view at the time.  For instance, I’ve written before on how and why Final Fantasy VII seems to resonate so strongly with gamers of a certain age (The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me).

In addition, the arrival of CDs were a great thing for gaming.  I think so many of the reasons the system was a big event for me could be tied the distinct advantages that these discs brought to the scene.  Up until that point, the primary expense in making a game went into the manufacturing of ROM cartridges.  The cost-savings on the vastly cheaper CDs translated to greatly lower prices on store shelves.  Those green-labelled Greatest Hits releases of popular games at $20 meant that my meager savings at the time could go a lot farther in buying games.  The N64 analogue, Player’s Choice, had games retailing for double that.  

FFIX Fight

Final Fantasy IX is my favorite of the series.

The low price of the CD medium was also a boon for third parties as evidenced by how they flocked to the system.  For cartridge based games, failure to live up to sales expectations could bring a company to near ruin since a lot of money had been blown on producing costly cartridges that weren’t selling.  With CDs, these losses weren’t nearly as severe, and, consequently, many developers were willing to take greater risks, and this led to a greater amount of diversity in the games that were released for the console.  While there were a lot of quintessential games that were released on the SNES and the Genesis, the 16-bit era was also the era of the “me too” game, where too many developers were focused on making copycats of the few innovative blockbuster titles, and this led to a glut of mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and lame Mortal Kombat clones.  

On the PSX, there were many series born around taking risks on new ideas instead of playing it safe with the tried and true.  Some of these include Resident Evil with its focus on atmosphere and suspense, Wipeout with its focus on high-speed, high-precision racing, Twisted Metal’s high-octane car combat, Tomba with its mix of platforming, RPG, and Metroid-style worldbuilding, and Tomb Raider which revolutionized the action/adventure genre with its mix of 3D platforming, combat, and puzzle solving.  This list could honestly go on for a while.  And even the games that were cloning the germ of other groundbreaking series tried to be innovative in their own ways.  For instance, you wouldn’t have Silent Hill and Parasite Eve without Resident Evil, but Silent Hill created its own identity with its focus on psychological horror, as did Parasite Eve which fused survival horror with Squaresoft RPG design.

CTR

Crash Team Racing is a legendary kart game.

This was also the era when gamers became really obsessed with story in games.  There had been story-driven games before on consoles (like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest) and, of course, adventure games like King’s Quest and Monkey Island were huge on PC, but with the relatively immense storage space that CDs offered, a new generation of heavily cinematic Japanese game design came to rule the roost.  The biggest directors of this era were veteran Japanese developers that were heavily influenced by their interest in Hollywood-style storytelling, including Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil), and Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy).  The influence of their cinematic approach to game design still dominates today’s big budget gaming landscape which gives just as much weight to storytelling as it does core gameplay mechanics.

Thus, Playstation was a major turning point in gaming.  I often wonder if I would still be as interested in gaming today if I didn’t have PSX during my early teen years.  It’s not so much because of the mature edge that it was marketed on, but simply because it enabled the birth of so many of the series that I love.  If nothing else, I don’t think my tastes in games would be as developed as they are, which is to say that I don’t think I would be as interested in the variety of games that I am.

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