Monthly Archives: October 2021

I am going to rant about the Switch Online Expansion Pack

I am going to rant about the Switch Online Expansion Pack.

I have been a subscriber to the Switch Online service since its inception. I would not call it a great service, but I have found its value justifies its price. I was a huge fan of Mario 35 (which came free with the service) last year, although I am of course enormously frustrated that they took the game down in March. I get that they launched the game to celebrate Mario’s 35th anniversary, but why develop a game to just have it available for a limited time? It would be one thing if the player base had fallen off and the cost of maintaining the game wasn’t worth it anymore. But all the way until the end it seemed to me like Mario 35 had a very engaged audience. I tried PAC-MAN 99, which was sort of a follow-up game, but it just didn’t engage me like Mario 35. Then there’s the online multiplayer aspect of the service. I don’t play a lot of online games on the Switch. I got my fill of Splatoon on the Wii U, and I mainly use the Switch online functionality to play Mario Kart 8 on very rare occasion with family and to download levels for Super Mario Maker 2.

The most appealing feature of Switch Online to me has always been the NES and SNES games that become accessible through the subscription. That said, I don’t think there is really much special about the NES and SNES libraries on the Switch. Most of the main draws are games that I personally have played to death on other platforms and, in some cases, I’ve technically bought multiple times over in some fashion or another. (For instance, I own Super Mario Bros. 3 on NES, Game Boy Advance, 3DS Virtual Console, Wii U Virtual Console, and NES Classic Edition.). And to make matters worse, these libraries grow at a trickle with months going by without any new additions.

And yet despite all of its shortcomings, I still find myself using this feature of the service the most. There are times when I’m in a funk, and I don’t want to play a new game, I just want something old and comforting. Times when I just want to decompress and boot up Donkey Kong Country for the umpteenth hundred time. I think these retro games offer two benefits that appeal over just playing something more modern. The first is that they are nostalgic comforts. I mentioned I own numerous copies of Super Mario Bros. 3, and the reason for that of course is that sometimes I just want to play Super Mario Bros. 3 on a whim. That game holds a special place in my heart, some of my earliest memories are of playing that game. And there are times when I’m feeling down that I can go to that game and be reminded of all I’ve been through in life and all the challenges that I’ve faced and then I feel better because I realize that what I’ve been feeling is just another bump along the road.

The other reason why I like to have this library of retro games just waiting for me there on the Switch is that there is a straightforwardness to many retro games that is difficult to find in more modern offerings. Modern games can often be really hard to zone out to. They have lots of cutscenes and story elements and tutorials and other bits that you have to pay close attention to, even in situations when you just want to shut off your brain and engage with pure mechanics. A lot of older games tend to put a significantly lower mental load on the player. You don’t need much of a tutorial to play Donkey Kong Country, it’s just a game about running and jumping. You don’t need long cutscenes to convey the Shakespearean tragedy of the plot in Kirby’s Adventure. You just boot the game up and play. At the end of a long, hard day, it’s nice to just have a collection of games that you can just peruse and boot any one of them up at random with no worry given to how much time you’re going to have to spend getting the introductory cutscenes and tutorials out of the way.

So of course I was thrilled a few weeks ago when Nintendo announced it would be expanding the Switch Online service to include N64 and Genesis games. I was slightly annoyed by the plan to charge extra over the existing subscription fee, but I figured the new price couldn’t be that much, maybe ~$10 more at the most. After all, despite it’s shortcomings, Switch Online’s rather small $20/year fee has always made it rather easy to balance out the cost-benefit equation for this product. …..And then the actual price came out……$50/year……meaning a $30 up charge over the existing service……over twice the price of the base subscription.

That’s a lot. Well beyond what I ever thought could have been a worst case scenario. And really, not that many games are included at launch. A mere nine N64 games and fourteen Genesis games. Of course, they promise more will be coming, but with how they’ve slowly trickled out NES and SNES games, the safe assumption is that it will be a long time before this “expansion pack” sees any sort of expansion.

I also worry about the Genesis games. There is an existing retail collection of Genesis games on the Switch: the “SEGA Genesis Classics” collection. One would assume purchasing this collection of games outright would be a better option than paying $30 year after year to play these games on your Switch, but the emulation in the retail collection is actually quite poor. There is noticeable input lag that makes the fast arcade style games that the system is known for less responsive and more of a slog to play. Much as I’ve scoured the news on this service, I can’t find any details on the emulation for the Genesis games being released on the Switch Online service. My fear is that its the same emulation that is currently used for the retail classics collection, and if that’s the case, then these games simply won’t be worth playing on the Switch. If it’s better emulation, then that would be awesome and make the service quite a bit more appealing (although at the same time I suppose it would be a kick in the shins to the people who bought the classics collection).

As excited as I was for the service initially, I do not have plans to pay for the upgrade when it comes out. Maybe down the road when a significant number of new games have been added (if that ever happens) I will reconsider. But the thing is that while I can rationally reject this as an overpriced product, I know myself well enough to foresee how I could potentially break down and pay for this. Some day I’m going to come home frustrated and tired from work and in my ill temper I’m going to think “Hey, it would be a real great pick-me-up to just be able to play Star Fox 64 right now.” All it takes is really just one moment of weakness to cave in and pay for something you feel like you shouldn’t.

And is that so bad? Probably not really. I’m deeply annoyed by the pricing of this service upgrade and don’t want to support it. But ultimately, this is not some sort of great moral crisis. The only principle at stake here is the principle of not paying for something that is blatantly overpriced. There is no reason to abstain from buying it other than that. Nintendo is not really scamming customers here. They are, if anything, being brutally honest about how little value they’re delivering for the price. And I don’t know of any issues with employee wellbeing that might lead me to want to boycott their products. Of all the scummy things that happen in video games, this is extremely tame in the grand scheme of things. The world will not flood and children will not starve if all of a sudden I break down and pay the money. So if it happens, it happens. I’ll feel like a hypocrite for a little bit, but life will go on.

But…….seriously……thirty dollars……what are they thinking.

Blair Witch

Blair Witch follows the mythology of the 90s hit found footage horror film, The Blair Witch Project, although as it tells a relatively self-contained story, I don’t think its necessary to be familiar with the movie to enjoy the game (it does however probably help some). In the fictional world of Blair Witch, the residents of Barkittsville, Maryland hold onto legends that warn of murders, mysterious disappearances, and supernatural forces that inhabit the surrounding Black Hills Forest. All of these legends seem to loop back to the Blair Witch, a piece of local folklore that has existed since colonial times.

Taking place seemingly some time after the events of the original film (but before the 2016 sequel), Blair Witch focuses on the story of Ellis Lynch, a police officer still suffering from the psychological trauma incurred during his time serving in Iraq (or maybe Afghanistan, I don’t think the game specifically says). After a local boy goes missing and the police suspect that the youth has run away into the forest, Ellis shows up late to the search party with his emotional support dog, Bullet. With the other searchers already deep into the forest, Ellis sets off onto his own path with the aid of Bullet and his keen sense of smell. As sun sets, Ellis unsurprisingly finds himself lost and entrapped in the supernatural nightmare of the forest.

Blair Witch is primarily an exploration adventure game. Ellis, lost in the forest, soon discovers that the missing boy didn’t run away, but was kidnapped by a dangerous assailant who resides in the woods. To catch the killer, Ellis must follow clues through the forest, solve puzzles to overcome barriers gating progress, and occasionally contend with hostile entities that stalk the forest. It’s an extremely story heavy game but does make a reasonable use of conventional gameplay elements.

The woods themselves are a genuine masterwork of atmosphere and mood. There’s something about a deep, primordial forest, especially at night, that stokes a special kind of primal apprehension. Forests are wide open, leaving one vulnerable to threats from all directions, yet closed enough to reduce visibility to what may be lurking in the surroundings and to block out light from the moon and the sun. And then there is the labyrinthine nature of the thing. Man can get swallowed up, lost and never to return from the gulf of their enormity. The greatest factor favoring the survival of modern man is his connection to civilization, and deep within the obscurity of the forest he is cut off, unreachable and unfindable by the outside world that has been warped to uniquely suit his survival.

For a long, long time, video game forests kind of sucked. Technology was just too limited to create something in which the player could truly feel lost. In most cases, the player realized they were obviously on a very clear path with dense trees rising up around them to act as invisible walls that prevented the player from wandering off the intended path. Things started to get better around the time of the Xbox 360. Alan Wake is one of my favorite action horror games because it did a really good job of capturing the all-engulfing foreboding of the woods at night. Probably the first game to truly create the sensation in my mind. And now I think Blair Witch does probably an even better job. You truly feel lost, alone, and helpless in this game, even when you are really on the track the the designers intended.

However, the fearsome awe of the natural is only one aspect of this game’s horror mechanics. Unsurprisingly, there is a heavy dose of the supernatural. Reality is fluid within the forest, seemingly guided by the incomprehensible eldritch machinations of the mysterious Blair Witch, a force that clearly pervades the game although rarely ever referenced directly. Specters, hallucinations, shadow entities, and the unseen predation of the kidnapper himself stalk and strike at Ellis. While the tense atmosphere of the forest is excellent, the supernatural terrors form more of the core of the game’s straightforward scares. And they work mostly fine as such.

What I consider to be a bit of letdown is how overt the supernatural elements are. As a horror movie, The Blair Witch Project was notoriously subtle about the influence of the supernatural. Until the very end, every supposedly supernatural event had an element of “plausible deniability” to it. What I mean by that is that the bizarre events happening around the main characters could be explained by supernatural forces, but the audience could just as easily accept more grounded and “realistic” explanations for what was happening. Since the original film, the sequels and this game have really done away with the “plausible deniability” aspect that catapulted the franchise to popularity and instead have focused on more explicitly supernatural occurrences largely to the dismay of fans of the original.

Possibly, I think the designers may have wanted to give an element of this “plausible deniability” to the game through Ellis’ trauma-induced hallucinations. We are told very early in the story that Ellis is suffering mental trauma from his time in service, and there are frequent flashbacks to a generically Middle Eastern setting throughout the game. From a certain perspective, once could see the otherworldly transpirations as a result of Ellis’ increasingly unstable mental state. This creates a confusing layered reality of the real world, Ellis’ illusions, and the supernaturally twisted reality created by the witch. To be honest, the war trauma angle is something that I didn’t particularly care for. Beyond its implications about mental health, these jumps to the Middle East just take the player away from the place that I think really shines in the game which is of course the densely atmospheric forest.

One good element that the mental trauma plot thread brings to the game is Bullet, Ellis’ emotional support dog that accompanies him through the ordeal in the forest. Ellis can issue commands and interact with Bullet in a way that encourages the dog to help with puzzle solving and fending off the spectral creatures that inhabit the forest. There are very rudimentary combat encounters wherein the pair are occasionally ambushed by invisible creatures that Ellis needs to kill with his flashlight, and the player must keep Bullet close by and pay attention to the direction the dog is barking to uncover where these invisible enemies are hiding. This game could have been a very straightforward “walking simulator” where the player just explores the forest while spooky stuff happens around them, but I think the challenge provided by the rudimentary combat and puzzles does create some sense of player agency and thus betters immersion in the game’s setting and atmosphere.

Horror tends to fall apart when it becomes excessive. If a game is throwing scares at a player every few seconds, then the player eventually just becomes numb and the game loses its edge (see Dead Space 3 as possibly the most egregious offender of this phenomenon). The trick, from what I can tell, is to balance segments of foreboding and ominous atmosphere that builds tension with segments of direct threat where the player is in a heightened state of alarm. Horror comes from oscillating through a cycle of gradually increasing tension which culminates in a state true of danger and duress wherein the player is explicitly threatened. After the danger has passed, then there must be a cool off period where the tension is released and the player can then begin the aforementioned emotional buildup anew.

The scariest horror games tend to be those that are very good at this cycle. But where a lot of them fall apart is in the climax, where they tend to go overboard in trying to create an experience that tops everything before it, and the result is something that feels more like a big spectacle than something truly dreadful. I felt like Blair Witch definitely suffered from this problem. The final stretch of the game is fairly overbearing with reality constantly warping into new demented configurations around the character as he’s drawn toward the final confrontation with the kidnapper. I guess I could see how individual pieces of this story segment could be scary on their own, but when they are all just piled together like they were, it just loses its edge and I felt like I was ready for all the spooky stuff to get out of the way so I could see the game’s final conclusion.

The game’s ending is utterly predictable. I’m not going to spoil it or anything, but I think most people will figure out how the story resolves very early on. In addition to the “standard” ending, which could probably be considered the bad ending, there is also a slightly more positive good ending. The game tells you from the very beginning that it is judging your actions and the outcome will be affected by your choices. I got the bad ending and after looking up what is necessary to get the good ending, I’m not sure it’s at all possible to intuit how to get the good ending on your first playthrough. There is a long list of actions that must be completed for the good ending, and I’m not sure the reward is really worth the effort. The ending is kind of lame, so I think that to enjoy this game one must focus on the journey rather than the destination.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Blair Witch. It is a very good horror game, even if it has a handful of stumbles. It’s got great atmosphere, some great puzzles and challenges, and some very spooky scenarios, even if the main character is kind of annoying and the climax of the game falls apart. It’s also a gorgeous game and really makes its haunted wilderness come to life with excellent lighting, detail, and fidelity. I played on PC and for a long while I thought it was hideous. I would compare what I was seeing on my screen to the screenshots on Steam, and I was certain they had posted doctored screenshots. About 70% of the way through the game, I started fiddling around with the settings and realized that I had something turned on that was greatly degrading the image (HDR). After fixing that setting, I was blown away by how great it looked. The joys of PC gaming and all that! I’m really regretful that I didn’t play through the whole game with those improved settings.

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