Monthly Archives: April 2014

Dream Games – Persona x Ouran High School Host Club

PersonaTarotI’m not afraid to admit that Ouran High School Host Club is not only one of the greatest anime series of all time, but perhaps even one of the greatest television series ever.  Based on the manga of the same name it tells the tale of lower middle class scholarship student, Haruhi Fujioka, who is forced to masquerade as a male host to pay a debt owed resulting from a smashed antique vase. Her male host cohorts are rich, vain, good-looking, and (at times) painful; seemingly unaware of the vicissitudes of life outside the walls of the very exclusive Ouran High School.  It all sounds a bit silly, and it is, but amongst the frivolity are some surprisingly heartwarming moments driven by some deceptively deep characters.  Dating sim, visual novel, adventure game – with great characters and clever writing, it is a series that is ripe for video game pickings.

But behind the helm of a creative mind it could be something more than just your standard licensed fare.  Imagine the characters of the Host Club being put in extraordinary circumstances.  Ordinary High School kids forced to grow within and together in order to survive, I don’t know, say a demon invasion.  And all while keeping their host club up and running and building their own personal relationships.

If that sounds familiar its because that’s pretty much every Persona game ever made.  And what could be better than a fish out of water story than one where characters from more than one universe are forced to work together.  Imagine the quiet and reserved playable character from Persona 3 interacting with the flamboyant leader of the Host Club Tamaki Suoh.  This is a game that is too good to not be made.

OuranHighSchoolHostClub

 

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From The Armchair: China Rising

ArmchairWhat-ho, chums.

Of all the gaming news that I’ve browsed through this week, the one piece of information that made me sit forward in my armchair with a quizzically raised eyebrow was this: China has revealed its censorship rules for console games. I would encourage you to take a look at the long and sometimes baffling list of restrictions that China feels is necessary in order to ‘protect’ its citizens from harm. The ban on anything that ‘promotes cults or superstitions’ caught my eye in particular – does this include Harry Potter? What about vampires? Ghosts? All very confusing.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out, but it does seem a little rich for the Chinese government to come down so hard on official games when they seemingly do little about the rampant piracy and copyright infringement that plagues the country. It says something when even the Chinese military feel it’s perfectly OK to make a clone of Call of Duty (the wonderfully titled ‘Glorious Mission‘). Pretty soon though, Chinese citizens will have the choice, should they wish, of buying legitimate games and consoles, rather than ‘Chintendo Viis’ and ‘Nintendo PolyStations’.

But considering the censorship restrictions, the Xbox One and PS4 will have few games to offer the Chinese market: a quick look at the list of games released so far reveals that most of them would probably fall foul of the censors on grounds of violence. Nintendo, on the other hand, have an ace up their sleeve in terms of the family-friendly Mario games – could Nintendo’s launch into the Chinese market prove to be the shot in the arm the Wii U so desperately needs?

It wasn’t so long ago that this humble author was himself the victim of Chinese censorship. During my travels around Japan, I penned a humble webblog that one avid reader informed me had been blocked on Chinese shores. I could never fully understand the reasons behind this censorship by the Chinese authorities – perhaps they did not wish their citizens to see what a simply marvellous time I was having, lest they defected to search out the pleasures of Japan for themselves.

I wonder, is A Most Agreeable Pastime available for perusal on the Chinese mainland? If you happen to be in the Middle Kingdom, do please let us know. Although if our offerings ARE being blocked by the Chinese censors, I’m not quite sure how you would be reading this missive…

Ah well, maybe we will never know.

In domestic gaming news, I raced through the entirety of Beyond Good & Evil HD this week, and thoroughly enjoyed myself along the way. The ending was particularly intriguing – I dearly hope the much-talked-about sequel finally gets made to clear up a few outstanding questions. I also particularly enjoyed the collectible system, and unusually I went out of my way to discover all that the game had on offer rather than racing to the end – this blog post does a good job of explaining what the game system gets right (and a bit of what it gets wrong).

That’s all for this week, toodle-pip for now!

Lucius Merriweather

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It’s time to drop our obsession with the word addiction

An article published on Kotaku a few days ago read “OK, I’m addicted to Hearthstone“.  It is the sort of turn of phrase we throw around all the time without giving it so much as a split second’s thought.  Seemingly every game that we play and enjoy elicits a claim of addiction.  That Skyrim was so addictive.  My god Planet Puzzle League is addictive.  Dark Souls II addiction has set in.  Of course what we’re saying is that we are enjoying a game so much, that there is almost nothing we’d rather be doing.  Claiming game addiction has become a badge of honour.  The internet laughs and moves on to the next ‘addiction’.

But ask people with problems with addiction and its probably not a laughing manner.  Addictive behaviour is a serious condition, in some circles considered a mental illness, that has serious social and personal implications for both those addicted and their friends and families.  In most cases these addictions are hidden from love ones and left untreated for long periods of time. Gambling addiction is one of the more publicised illnesses, and according to the Australian Government, up to 500,000 Australians are at risk of becoming, or are problem gamblers, at an estimated social cost of $4.7 billion every year.  And depending on who you ask, cases of internet and video game addiction are on the rise.

The fact is there are people all around Australia and the world, that are or are at risk of becoming seriously addicted in some form.  It isn’t something they are proud of in most cases, and rarely are they likely to publicise their addiction as something to be proud of. So while we laugh at how ‘addicted’ we are to games, the reality is we can and do stop playing of our own volition.  That isn’t addiction and nor should we trivialise it as such.  So let’s try and remove it from our vocabulary, in respect of those people that are suffering from some form of legitimate addiction or addictive tendencies.

And not to pick on Kotaku, but you know what, homelessness isn’t very funny either.

DarkSouls2

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Borderlands’ violence borders on overkill

BorderlandsBA

I have played my fair share of violent video games.  I’m not proud of it, nor am I ashamed of it, it is just an accepted truth when you play as many games as I do.  In fact it is so common that I don’t tend to notice it any more.  A head blown off here, a torso torn apart there, it’s just the way it is for the most part, and I derive close to zero pleasure from watching some clever animator’s handy work in drawing a contorted and bloody torso.  I go to games for the stories, character development, clever mechanics.  The violence, well that is sometimes just a nice little wrapper, that entices nor offends.  It just is.

That is until Borderlands.

I have been playing Borderlands for just over 10 hours now and still am not entirely sure why.  I don’t find the role playing elements particularly gripping, the loot is uninspired, and the story, i think, is somewhere in the background noodling away.  The game looks great from a technical standpoint but is incredibly dull from an artistic one.  In short I’m not really that gripped by the game.  And so here I am debating whether I’m going to persist with it, but also unsure as to why I’ve come this far.  Or at least I’m in denial as to why.  The truth is Borderlands hits at something primal inside of me that I didn’t know, or at least hadn’t noticed, existed.  Video game violence is something I’ve denied (with caveats) is an issue for years.  I’ve defended video games from the siege laid upon them by lobby groups and the mainstream media who claim that video game violence is the bane of our modern existence.  And yet here I am with the stark realisation that, the only reason I persist with Borderlands is an inner thirst for violence.  Borderlands is no more or less violent than other games in its genre, but violent is all it is, really.  “It’s just a bit of fun” I said.

And I maintain that video game violence is okay, providing it’s in service of, or at least, accompanying some greater narrative or mechanical draw.  The problem with Borderlands, at least personally, is that there is nothing outside of  the sheer act of inflicting harm on (virtual) others keeping my interested.  I think about the key mechanics driving me forward, the collection of better and faster ways to dispose of my enemies.  Without the distractions of story or character attachment, the guns and the violence, are the only real reason to persist.  Call of Duty is violent, yes, but I come to those for cheesy storylines of mateship and Government conspiracies.  With Borderlands everything is built in service of making you the best possible killer.  Bigger, faster and more powerful guns are the only aim.  And with that I’m forced to admit that, yes, I am only playing Borderlands because of the pleasure I’ve derived from killing people.  I play because I’m in the habit of finding better ways to kill.  .  And that’s not a great thing to admit.

If you’ve seen the film The Hurt Locker (and minor spoilers here for those that haven’t) you would’ve been surprised at Sergeant First Class William James’ (played by Jeremy Renner) decision to leave his family and return to the battlefield, seemingly at odds with his traumatic experiences throughout the film.  But the film brilliantly sets out a character, and empathy for that character, that it is infinitely clear that he knows nothing else, that is driven by the adrenaline that comes with the combat scenario.  He obviously finds some personal growth from war, as humans we always strive to be better at what we do. Rightly or wrongly, he doesn’t continue because he wants to, he continues because he has to.   I’m not familiar with war, but I am familiar with being a creature of habit.  And I’ve come to the realisation that I’m not playing Borderlands because I want to, I’m playing Borderlands because my human nature is telling me I have to.  Its an inner-bloodlust that is keeping me playing, and while it would never translate into the real world, it is making me feel incredibly uneasy about who I am as a person.  To some people Borderlands is just light entertainment, to me its a window into my own psyche that I’m not entirely comfortable having open.  And so with that I’m making the decision to stop, rightly or wrongly.

Have you ever played a game you thought was a bit ‘too much’ in its treatment of violence?  Tell us in the comments!

BorderlandsCharacters

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The great mobile gaming snub: who will remember poor old Bubble Ducky?

I can remember people laughing at cell phone games.  And its not really that long ago that people in the west laughed at Square-Enix releasing a Final Fantasy game in Japan exclusively for mobiles.  It goes to the fickleness of consumers and the games media proper that it was not long until they were celebrating mobile games and hailing them as the market to watch. Fickle industry aside, mobile games are now big business (for a select few). But for such a large segment of the videogame market, it is amazing how little is documented about mobile games.  Sure, we all will remember Flappy Bird for its moment in the sun, and Plants Vs Zombies because in some ways it was the first mobile game to really connect with traditional players; but what about the others, the older games that were released between mobile gaming milestones Snake and Wordjong?  There are a lot of them, and I’d hazard a guess that they’ll be lost to the annals of time, as we move from fashion to fashion, ditching these expendable pieces of entertainment for the new hotness for the price of little more (and more often less) than a free-to-play microtransaction.

Personally I’ve never been one to indulge in mobile games, mainly because I don’t find myself in a situation where I absolutely need to play a game, but only have my phone handy.  Even in the toilet.  But I there have been a few instances where, just by absolute chance, I’ve happened upon a little mobile game that took my fancy.  In most cases they failed to hold my attention, and just as soon as I’d downloaded them, they were deleted from my phone never to be seen again.  But one game, more than a decade ago bucked that trend, and still remains to this day the mobile game I’ve spent the most time with.  That little game was Digital Chocolate’s simple colour matching puzzler, Bubble Ducky.

Bubble Ducky

Now I’m under absolutely no delusion that Bubble Ducky was a great game.  It brought absolutely nothing new to the video game table, and in most ways, was inferior to just about every other portable puzzler that has caught, but more importantly held, my attention over the years.  But it was simple enough to pick up and play, but deep enough to be more than something I played once and ditched.  It played into my slightly obsessive personality, as many puzzlers want to do, and ate at me until I had cleared the screen of bubbles and (to use an American term) beaten the game.  Best of all it disguised a pretty severe degree of difficulty with a bright and colourful aesthetic that was charming, and if I’m honest, brightened my days in a lot of cases.  So, no, it wasn’t a great game, but it was one that was impeccably designed to be fit for purpose, that is being a game that is designed to be consumed in bite sized chunks at times when you’ve got nothing you’d rather be doing than passing the time.

Bubble Ducky is the only mobile game I’ve really ever spent significant amounts of time with.  Not because I have an in-principle or snobbish aversion to them, but more because I don’t have the place in my daily routine where a mobile game would come in handy.  But they are out there, and people are obviously consuming them at a rate of knots.  I hate to think how many mobile games have been released since Bubble Ducky, most of which have probably gone unnoticed.  I’ve written about the revisionist history of videogames where the press and enthusiasts are curating a version of the industry that they think is worthy of being remembered, and therefore perpetuating a false version of events.  Mobile games are likely to fall into this camp, and while many of these games aren’t masterpieces, it is a legitimate part of our pastime and one that we shouldn’t let fade into history.  After all there are seemingly countless parts of the internet covering the obscure and terrible corners of console and PC games of yore, and while enthusiasts like to discount its legitimacy, mobile games are still a tangible part of this industry we call videogames.

There are some great sources for mobile games, so for more in-depth and ongoing analysis of the mobile games market:

Pocketgamer.biz – Mobile Games industry news – www.pocketgamer.biz/

Pocket Tactics the home of proper games on iPad, iPhone and Android

Pocketgamer.com News and Reviews from the world of mobile and portable gaming

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Trials Fusion and a short argument against series revolution

TrialsFusionIt’s funny just how similar Trials Fusion is to its predecessors.  On picking up the controller I was immediately thrown back into the light touch input mode that has caused me no end of repetitive strain injury symptoms from playing the series in the past, and before long the nuances of traversing across perilous platformers on two-wheels came flooding back.  Trials is a simple concept that has been finely tuned between entries.  It started as brilliant physics-based platforming disguised as a motorcross game; and Fusion is no different.  At its core Trials Fusion is the same game as Trials HD and Trials Evolution before it.  And that is in no way a bad thing.

Video games are strange beasts of things.  The environment in which they exist is constantly changing, as technology brings with it new opportunities and expanding horizons.  Games adapt to these changing parameters, as developers seek squeeze every ounce of new power from new consoles, in pursuit of the ‘perfect’ game.  Of late this has been cleverly disguised by creative directors coming out and claiming that the new game is ‘how it was originally imagined’.  Of course what this is all leading to is changes of the guard from old to new.

Progress is a great thing and it’d be naive of me to claim anything otherwise.  But when it comes to a long running series, it can bring with it wholesale changes that can in some circumstances represent a significant departure from previous entries.  Sometimes this results in something that plays worse – the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog’s transition to modern consoles immediately springs to mind, and while I have fond memories of Doom 3 it is far from a critical darling, especially compared to its predecessors.  But for the most part, anecdotally at least, games improve largely in line with technology, resulting in modern masterpieces like Rayman Legends or Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.  And we so we should all rejoice in knowing that the best is still ahead of us.

Rayman

But this definitely has its downsides.  If you look at it from a slightly more cynical angle, you could argue that these small steps forward for games represent mass redundancy of everything that came before.  Rayman Legends is so beautiful and so fluid that going back to the first Rayman game released in 1995 is nearly impossible.  It is slow, it is plodding, and while it looked a treat at the time, it is well and truly showing its age now.  It’s not a bad game by any stretch, but when its compared to more modern entries in the series, it suffers in just about every respect.  It is a problem that is almost unique to video games and one that makes so much of our past near impossible to appreciate to anyone that doesn’t have that historical context.

While many series are widely criticised for stagnation, there is an argument to be made for slow and methodical evolution rather than revolution.  Trials Fusion is a great evolution of a great series, but it doesn’t make everything that came before redundant.  I could (and have) happily gone back to some of the best tracks in Trials Evolution without their brilliance being lessened by the new and shiny sequel. Rather than the Trials game to rule them all, it is just another solid entry in an incredibly solid series.  In no way could, or should that be levelled as a criticism.

Revolution is a sure fire way to gain critical and consumer acclaim, and it would be hard as a creative director to contain the desire to do something new and exciting.  But I think we give far less credit than is deserved to a developer that knows its formula and maintains a steady state.  While it may not get our hearts racing, and our Twitters tweeting about just how “our minds were blown”, being safe can in some ways be much kinder to your own legacy.  In the case of Trials Fusion it can, and likely will, be viewed as stagnation or void of creativity, but I prefer to be positive and think of it as future-proofing their series roots and legacy.  After all it would be nice to avoid those all too common words “it doesn’t hold up by modern standards” from being uttered by future video game enthusiasts.

TrialsFusionScreen

 

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GUEST POST: Nostalgia is a thing that is sold at Hot Topic

Following on from my post on the Americanisation of gaming history I invited fellow games enthusiast, writer and friend, Matt Mason to lend a US perspective on the issue…

ClashatdemonheadSPMatt – When I see a fresh-faced kid walking down the street, pants a bit too skinny and his hair a bit too foppish, wearing a shirt emblazoned with an NES controller and the word “roots” underneath it, I kind of have to shake my head.

Someone bastardized my childhood and made an industry of it.

The fine gentlemen of A Most Agreeable Pastime offered me the chance to try and redeem the seeming Americanization of videogame history. But…I can’t in all honesty do that. Sir Gaulian was right: the internet has kindly swept the likes of the Commodore 64 and Sega Master System under the rug in favor of a culture that was built upon Nintendo Entertainment Cereal, cartoons starring portly plumbers and other things stamped with an the big N’s gold-crested “seal of quality.”

That’s what tends to happen with history though; we’re never given the nitty-gritty details, just the glossy and happy iteration that looks good in a book somewhere.

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial obviously killed the Atari and video games as we know it. It had nothing to do with salacious software like Custer’s Revenge, in which you raped a Native American woman tied to a cactus or Chase the Chuck Wagon, the blatant advertisement in which you played as the titular carriage from Purina’s dog food commercials.

1UPElectronic Arts has become the most terrible corporation because of its market manipulation, odd pricing schemes and abhorrent micro-transactions. But in no way is it gamers fault because they bought into it all in the first place, leading EA to consistently expand upon those dirty trends.

We don’t want to hear the whole story – just the one that succinctly wraps it up in a bow and makes it look like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

By definition nostalgia is “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” It is by no means a tangible thing; but with the right sway, you can feel nostalgic even if it’s for something you haven’t experienced first-hand. Hence the aforementioned kid, probably not even a twinkle in his parents’ eyes when the NES came to be, living it up like he’s on to something nobody else is.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m all for younger generations playing the games of yore, if not for how engaging they can be than to at least look at them with an analytical eye and appreciate them for what they did. You can’t blame those who came after you for not necessarily enjoying them in the same way you did; it’s hard to fathom that the amount of tech and memory that’s used to animate Mario today is probably somewhat equal to the entirety of the original Super Mario Bros.

What is weird is how when people ingrain themselves in a culture, and I don’t mean just in videogames, is that they kind of adopt social norms and take certain things as givens. Of course the NES was the roots of gaming; people within say it is and Hot Topic sells a shirt to corroborate that fact. Sure, arcades, home computers, Atari, ColecoVision, ZX Spectrum, Odyssey, Fairchild and Intellivision came before it; but damn it the NES was where it all began.

IntellivisionLogo

As humans, we have this predilection to remember the more dramatic things life has to offer. The more exciting, the more titillating, the more traumatic the better. Or, in the case of videogames, the more marketed, the more exposed, the more ingratiated the better.

This whole post came about because of an interesting exchange I had with Sir Gaulian about an uber-obscure NES game called Clash at Demonhead. He had mentioned it as a pillar in the NES’ history, when in reality it was anything but. He didn’t know any better; he just heard the name in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and assumed as much. I don’t know anybody who’s actually played it; hell, I’ve never actually seen a copy. But because Brian Lee O’Malley encountered it and named a band in his book after it, suddenly it was as big a part of classic games thinking as playground strategy sessions and Electronic Gaming Monthly.

We are a culture that is inundated with ideas, thoughts and opinions that sometimes we forget to make out our own. When I started having kids, I so badly wanted to teach them the ropes, have them play the classics and apply their experiences to the games of today that I forgot to let them nurture their own nostalgia. My oldest son feels about Minecraft the way I do about Super Metroid. Instead of holding that against him, I should let him expound on it. He may never play EarthBound, Mega Man 2 or Secret of Evermore and I have to be OK with that.

Instead of griping about the kid in the NES controller t-shirt whom never knew its initial impact, I should applaud him for at least acknowledging the past. Not every little tidbit is going to be discovered; but he’s on the right track. Not every game is going to be well-renowned, played ad naseum and debated upon. But that doesn’t make them any less important. They meant something to someone, even if it was just the developer who created it or the store clerk who stocks it or the kid who randomly finds it at a rummage sale.

Even though it may not get the recognition or cultural clout that you wished it would, the fact that your favorite game/console/experience happened at all should be enough. And it is.

Thanks to Matt for providing a uniquely American perspective on the early years of video games.   You can follow him on Twitter (@MHMason) or visit his blog at Obtain Potion.  Join me in thanking Matt in the comments.

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