Monthly Archives: June 2012

Transformers: War for Cyberton – Why all the dark energon?

Transformers: War for Cybertron was a decent, if not derivative shooter that lived and died by its licence.   And that’s okay, really.  The Transformers licence is a good one with a lot of potential and a hell of a lot of good lore from which to lift interesting and novel game mechanics from.  Being able to transform on the fly from a slow and cumbersome yet powerful robot, into a fast and agile vehicle is fun to the point that it would almost enough on its own to pull you through to the conclusion of the game, even if the rest of the gameplay was mediocre.  The fact that the game plays and more importantly feels pretty good is just a bonus.

But despite feeling like a Transformers game something just felt wrong.  Not bad, just wrong.

And then I realised what it was – the soul of the television show was missing.  Sure, Optimus Prime, Megatron and fan favourites such as Tryticon and Omega Supreme were there – but something had changed and I couldn’t help but feel that we, the transformers and I, had grown apart.

Omega Supreme, we need to talk

So in desperation to save the relationship I went back to the original 80’s cartoons to try and reignite the spark.  After all, surely if we’d survived the strain of a few terrible movies we could overcome anything.

So one Friday night indoors, eight boxes of kleenex, three tubs of ice cream, a few mutilated family photos and a dozen episodes later I realised why War for Cybertron felt wrong.  There was no surfing.

Transformers G1, Season 1 Episode 13 (Ultimate Doom Part 3)

But its not the surfing per se, but what it represents in the Transformers Generation 1 universe.  Simply put, transformers was never meant to be serious.  Sure there was the underlying tale of good versus evil and the tug of war that plays out to determine the fate of humanity and the universe, but between that, between those defining moments such as the death of Optimus Prime and the subsequent rise of Rodimus Prime, are whimsical dialogue and situations – such as the scene where the Autobots literally surf to their next battle –  that gave the show a more lighthearted feel.  It was a children’s cartoon after all.  But it was so important in the context of the characters, and it went a long way to making the Autobots and Decepticons unique and personable and likely a reason the licence is endured.

That soul is missing  from the game.  Sure it has explosions and enough cameos to fill an entire guest book, but the lighthearted nature of the cartoons was lost in translation, and in its place was a dark and serious tone that, while not feeling out of place necessarily, just misses the point.  And while I enjoyed the game and it was clear that the developers, High Moon Studios have a ridiculous amount of respect and love for the Transformers universe, I came away with a sense that they buckled to the pressure of conforming to a wider trend in the video game industry and relying on a dark narrative and premise to appeal to a wider audience.  Unfortunately in this case it may not have been what the audience necessarily wanted.  Either that or it had been so long since they had watched the cartoon that they’d forgotten how fun they actually were.

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The official novel of the bestselling blog

If Wonderbook is anything to go by Sony is all for getting kids to read, and that’s cool.  I’m not going to be harsh on a partnership that encourages the imagination of the next generation of authors, artists, mathematicians, astronauts and economists, because at face value I absolutely agree,  kids definitely don’t read enough.  Actually neither do adults.  Blanket statement – everyone should read more, including me.

Getting kids into reading isn’t about making them read 900 page russian tragedies where everyone dies of starvation or disease, or the latest post-modernist novel in which the author shows off their unconventional yet interesting grasp on the english language.  It is about letting them decide what they’re interested in, where they can let their imaginations run wild and they can engage with not just the characters but the world more broadly.  And any book can do that, even those that are based on other media – even video games.

I can remember as a kid being instantly drawn to the novels based on DOOM and honestly in hindsight there is no worse source material.  All the novel took from the games was a general premise, hell invading earth and dudes shooting demon-spawn en masse.  But as a kid I was drawn into the world because it did more than just recount the ‘story’ of the game – it took me into a fantastical world where humans were on the back foot against the most hideous of monsters.  Most importantly there were guns and a hell of a lot of killing.  I was a young boy, after all.

What would I do if my future children came home and asked to spend their pocket money on one of these pulp novels?  Probably what any parent would do, encourage them to save that money for something bigger.   But if my children were actively engaged and excited about reading, providing the book wasn’t American Psycho, I’d do whatever I could do to harbour that enthusiasm because what starts with DOOM the novel could end with a degree in english literature and a love of the english language.

Now I’ve been positive about the whole thing I’ll get to the whole reason I’m writing this and that is the existence of a novel based on Driver: San Francisco.  It isn’t uncommon to find novelisations of the latest and greatest video game blockbusters  while browsing through book stores.  I was okay with Assassins Creed novels.  I could learn to live with the existence of a Dead Island novel.  And I barely scraped by noticing a Battlefield 3 novel without a psychotic episode.  But Driver: Nemesis the official novel of the bestselling game?  Firstly, I’m disturbed that the book has a trailer.  An actual video trailer. That is just weird.  But secondly and more importantly, why does this book even exist?  At the best of times video games, broadly speaking, aren’t known for their excellence in storytelling.  But taking a game thats main mechanic is based on driving and thats plot is borderline absurd and making it into an actual novel with story and characters and chapters makes me want to cry.  It made me cry so much that now I want to storm back into that store and buy it.  And read it.

And knowing my luck I’ll probably love it.  But that doesn’t make it okay.

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The hidden horror of Super Mario

I am a big fan of Star Wars and despite all of the killing and talk of the ‘dark side’ I still find the original trilogy a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun that can be taken as seriously, or not seriously as you like.  I am a few years too young to remember the original films in the cinemas, but hearing that amazing John Williams score while watching a short cliff notes summary of ‘the story so far’ scroll up the screen takes me instantly back to being a flannelette wearing  kid who was allowed to stay up late to watch the films on television whenever they were on.  Of course since then this view of the Star Wars universe as seen through a child’s eyes has transformed into an understanding of the broader background and implications of the Rebels’ fight against the empire, due in no small part to a wealth of gap-filling through countless pieces of media to consume from the Star Wars extended universe.  Because of this I’ll never see the Star Wars universe the same way again – for better or worse.

Thinking about Super Mario games for most people conjures similar happy memories of their childhood.  And with the whimsical graphics, upbeat musical score and let’s face it, plain adorable character design its pretty easy to see why.  Again as a youngster I took anything with the Mario name on it at face value, Super Mario Bros was equal to Super Mario Land was equal to Super Mario World.  Don’t worry I know better now so don’t jump down to the comments section to hurl abuse at me, but when I was younger I was nowhere near as critical (or cynical) of the media I consumed as I am now.  All I cared about were that Mario was jumping on mushrooms and collecting coins.  Or more to the point he would do this on the way to saving a princess.  Daisy, Peach, whatever.  It made no difference to me, the Mushroom kingdom and annexed territories were a great place to spend some time.  Of course as I would come to learn, not all was well in the Mario extended universe.  And I’m not just talking about Boos.

I’m talking about the Pionpi –  those undying, spring-healed enemies that populate the third world of that kinda-Mario Game Boy Classic, Super Mario Land.  This unlikely Mario foe is derived from hopping chinese ghost/vampire/all-round bad supernatural beings  known as Jiang shi who prey on the souls of the living, and in the game they are represented accordingly.  Invincible, fast and deadly, the Pionpi for me are the one thing that, even as a kid, made me look twice to make sure I’d put the right cartridge into my brand-spanking new Game Boy.  I couldn’t even comprehend a world where Goombas, Koopa Troopas and Pionpi co-existed as friends or enemies.  The Pionpi just felt out of place, in a haunting kind of way – if only for the fact that myth mentions nothing about ‘jumping on one’s head’ as a counter for this horrifying beast.

I guess we should just be glad that Nintendo decided not to include a specific death animation capturing the moment where the Pionpi feasts on our hero’s soul…

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The Joy of Super Mario 3D Land

I found myself a little apathetic towards Super Mario 3D Land when I first heard about it. Let’s face it, there have been PLENTY of Mario games down the years, and the central concept has changed little since the 1980s, leading me to start thinking the whole platform genre is getting a bit long in the tooth. But of course, I was being a fool: Super Mario 3D Land is an absolute joy to play from start to finish, and it only goes to prove that you can always rely on Mario to keep pushing in new directions while staying true to gaming’s old school roots.

It’s been a little while since I last played a Mario game, and frankly I’d forgotten how superbly polished they are. Often you find yourself forgiving a game for a sloppy camera or slightly iffy level design, but with Mario everything is completely spot on, all the way through the game, and if anything it gets better as you go along. Every new level throws in something new or refreshs an old idea with a new twist, and the difficulty curve is sublime: initially I thought it was far too easy, especially with the option of flying straight to the end of a level if you die several times in a row, but it turns out Nintendo were just luring me in with a false sense of security. Once you reach the ‘Special’ world, the difficulty really begins to ramp up, and the last few levels are some of the most cunningly designed and fist-shakingly difficult of the whole Mario canon. Beating the final level elicited a genuinely deserved sense of achievement.

As in the original Super Mario Bros., you have to hit a switch to knock Bowser into the lava.

But it doesn’t end there: if anything the game just keeps on giving. Finishing the game unlocks Luigi, who can jump slightly higher than Mario but is a bit less sure on his feet, which adds a whole new dynamic when playing through the levels. Then there are all of the hidden stars to find, well over 200 in all, and there’s also the challenge of hitting the top of the flagpole at the end of each level (a welcome throwback to the original Super Mario Bros.). Then when you’ve finally gone through every level with both characters, found every star and aced every flag, a new killer-hard level opens up that has to be the most difficult Mario level that’s ever been designed (I still haven’t beaten it… yet). All in all, despite its gentle start, Super Mario 3D Land has to be the most hardcore Mario game since Super Mario Bros. 3 (that’s the original NES Mario 3, when there was no save and you had to play the whole thing from start to finish in one go – kids don’t even know they’re born nowadays).

I absolutely love the helicopter boxes. That’s the flagpole at the end of the level in the distance by the way.

Speaking of which, I love the way the game pays homage to its 1980s forebears throughout, from the above-mentioned flagpoles to the return of the raccoon (technically, tanooki) suit, along with loads of little references scattered throughout the levels. You even get fireworks if you jump onto the flagpole with the timer ending on a 3, just like in the original game. And speaking of hidden things, the game is packed with Easter Eggs, like the weird ghost thing that appears in the trees at the end of the ghost house levels if you hang around long enough, and the Zelda sound effect that plays if you light three torches on one level. It’s a commendable way to celebrate Mario’s 25th anniversary.

The game isn’t all about looking back though: it has one eye firmly on the future, particularly when it comes to inventive level design that really makes full use of the Nintendo 3DS. Whereas the 3D effect is all but disposable for many games, here it really adds something, particularly in helping you to judge distances to platforms a lot more easily: I found a struggled a lot more on some levels when I switched them to 2D. There are also a few levels that look truly stunning, such as a vertigo-inducing level in which the camera switches to above your head and has you falling into the screen against the backdrop of some enormous waterfalls.

Now imagine this in 3D.

All in all, this game is a lesson that you should never be blasé about the latest Mario game: each one is a gameplay tour-de-force, and Super Mario 3D Land is up there with the very best Mario games – no, the very best GAMES – ever made.

[As dictated in awe by Lucius Merriweather.]

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Spinning Bird Kick right to the Heart

In high school I had a crush on a girl named Alicia.  I thought she was pretty awesome, at the time, and as a result about 70 per cent of my teenage energy and efforts went toward trying, in vain, to impress her.  But my efforts weren’t necessary embarrassing insomuch as they were misguided.  There was no dressing to impress, wearing of cologne, buying plush hello kitty toys or flowers – a romantic I certainly was not.  That wasn’t how I was going to win her heart, no not me sir.  But I did have a plan.  You see I was convinced as a lanky, red-headed fourteen year old boy that my admittedly rather great skills at playing competitive Street Fighter would be enough for her to fall madly in love with me, and spinning bird kick herself right into my arms.  I can remember standing in the arcade smashing opponent after opponent (at least, this is my memory of this time) smugly thinking to myself that this fight, this perfectly timed super combo, would be the one that would win her over and that we’d be madly in love and get married and have children and live happily ever after.  Of course this never happened and the girl that at one point I thought I was madly in love with continued not to notice my advances and continued, perhaps even more so, to ignore the fact that I was the greatest Street Fighter player frequenting my local arcade.  Okay so girls don’t care how good you are at videogames, that’s cool, unfortunately it took me more years than it should have to realise this.

But its okay the story isn’t all bummed out nerdy teenager.  I eventually found someone who, while she doesn’t appreciate my admittedly deteriorated Street Fighter skills, thinks I’m a pretty alright dude.  And for that I’m glad Alicia ignored two years worth of nerdy and self indulgent advances.

There’s no aphrodisiac like Street Fighter Alpha

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All the Muppets needed was a Kickstarter

I watched the new Muppet Movie on Sunday night and found it to be a delightful and nostalgic trip that didn’t miss a beat for the duration of the film.  The musical numbers were spot on and the Muppets themselves were as sharp as ever, in that puppet humour kind of way.  There were even a few call backs to that eponymous 1979 classic.  Needless to say the film lived up to what I remember the Muppets being all about back when they were at the height of their popularity.

As a pleasant surprise the plot line, which I had on watch for the ‘thing that was most likely to stuff up the movie’, was surprisingly serviceable without being obtrusive.  I mean lets face it the story of a film starring the Muppets is really just a device to watch the Muppets be as ridiculously silly and slapstick as possible, and as emotionally invested as to give rise to a tear jerker or two from Kermit the Frog.  And spoiler warning, Kermit goes ’emo’ within 20 minutes of the start of the film.  But that’s why we love him, isn’t it?

If you are sensitive to spoilers, don’t keep reading but I implore you, see the film, and thanks for reading.

If you haven’t seen the film the premise is simple – the Muppets need to raise the money to save their studio from certain destruction by an evil oil tycoon (is there any other type).  And that’s it really; a telethon and hilarity ensue.  The funny thing is, and i’m not sure if this is case anywhere else in the world, but I haven’t seen a telethon in about 15 years.   Which dates the Muppets somewhat, but also adds to the charm and nostalgia that comes with seeing the Muppets back in the spotlight.

And then I thought of how boring fundraising has become since the onset of the Internet.  I mean it was fun for a little while (nerve-wracking even) to watch Camoflaj cut it really close to their deadline in trying to raise the $500,000 to fund the development of their game Republique (not too far from the end half an hour of the Muppets film), but aside from that where are the talent shows, special events and galas that back in the day made fundraising a spectacle?

They don’t exist.  And these days all the Muppets would’ve needed was to launch a Kickstarter campaign.

So make an effort to see the Muppets.  Even better, save it for a day where you’re a bit down on life and rest assured, you’ll come out as assured about the world as ever.  Certainly worked for me.

A Kickstarter! Why didn’t we think of that?

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