Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Green Hills of Virtual Hydlide

So, I've recently had my collection go over a thousand games. I wish I could say it was a momentous occasion, the 1000th game one of the gems in said collection, but in reality I didn't even notice until I was sorting through my huge backlog, and noticed the total was just above a thousand.

Annoyingly, my backlog also noted that I had over 50% unfinished. This bothers me. I like playing games. During my years as a part-time game reviewer, I always stood by the rule that you had to finish a game before being able o review it - be it the hugest of the RPGs or the most boring of movie tie-in third-person adventure.

I was young and stupid and these days I readily admit you can take the full measure of most games in just under three hours - with some RPGs, especially of the Japanese variety, being the exception.

But still, I immensely enjoy beating games - even bad ones! In fact, I think some truly bad games are really quite enjoyable when approached with the proper mind-set. So, I decided to check the system I had the least unfinished games, so I could put a big nice check-mark next to it - look at that, the good old Sega Saturn. Only two unfinished games there, Virtual Hydlide and Alone in the Dark: Jack is Back (aka alone in the Dark 2).

Being the PC snob that I am, I didn't bother with the trials and tribulations of hooking up my old Sega Saturn to my HDTV - instead, I downloaded an emulator and put the Virtual Hydlide CD on my PC. 

Two unexpected things happened:

a) I had fun.
b) Wow this seemed way more intimidating when I was a thirteen year-old

Widely known as a crappy game, Virtual Hydlide deserves its fame. The graphics where bad at the time, now they're a pixelatted mess. The soundtrack is utterly forgettable. The characters are bad cutouts out of an FMV movie, and most enemies prance about like headless chickens, except when they step trough you to hit you on the back. 

But, you see, I lucked out. On my very first dungeon, I got the best possible random drop I could ever expect to get - a Darksword +2!

Usually you'd get a war-hammer or long sword, but in my very own, randomly-generated world, the Saturn Gods saw fit to grant me a Darksword +2. Not only is this item a requirement to beat the dragon boss of one of the latter dungeons (I found this as I consulted a faq to see if there were any important items I could miss if I didn't open every chest), it lets you fire balls of dark energy - effectively making it the second most powerful weapon in the game.

Now, this comes at a cost - it is a "dark weapon" after all. Yes, I lose 10 points of - get this, not life - my score every time I shoot it. Oh noes! Not to mention a couple of shots is enough to own most enemies, earning my way more than 10 points!

So, I steamrolled trough the game. The areas that seemed intimidating and scary in my childhood melted away in the face of my insurmountable dark powers. A couple of obscure boss patterns made me check a FAQ, but I mostly used it for the reference tables so I knew I missed nothing in the dungeons. Only bosses have ranged attacks in this game, so I was virtually untouchable, and it was only by the penultimate dungeon that I switched weapons (to another ranged weapon).

I enjoyed it for several reasons. 

First, it was catharsis. I remember, many years ago, being stressed out by the pressure of navigating a dark, seemingly unending dungeon, dreading that any turn I might take would unleash upon me a poisoning enemy, my supply of antidote herbs rapidly dwindling. Yes, this in a game that lets you save anywhere! I was a child!

There was, deep inside of me, a young man still very afraid of this game. And now that young man was reveling in Darksword +2-powered onslaught. A combination of age, more experience playing games, and my initial lucky drop made the game a piece of cake, and my younger self had its revenge.

Secondly, while the game is bland and just plain bad, it remains quite playable. It is easily, if not smoothly, controllable, it lets you save anywhere, and since leveling-up is controlled by story checkpoints instead of XP, there is no need to grind. So, while playing it, I was free to just bask in the experience of its overwhelmingly crappy visuals, bland dungeon design, and wonky storyline. I found myself analyzing this and that design decision, and even finding some hidden merits to the game!

In fact, there is something to be said for a compact, RPG-like experience that can be finished in a couple of hours. No grinding and no two dungeons alike, these two factors are rare indeed and contribute to turn Virtual Hydlide into that weird specimen: the RPG with no padding. 

Don't get me wrong, I love the satisfaction that comes from grinding into a super-powerful walking dispenser of justice, but variety is healthy and it would be very nice to find more RPGs pursuing the ideals that Virtual Hydlide displays - minus the general crappyness.

In the end, I was happy to see the devil-winged black evil dude melt upon receiving my finishing blow, and watched with some amount of glee the hammy final FMV featuring the happy rescued princess and the back of the dude I've been watching for the past two hours.

Hey, at least the game keeps in character!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Jolly Surprise - some thoughts on the buccaneer puzzle simulation Jolly Rover

I had no idea I had ever purchased Jolly Rover. I can't for the life of me wonder how that might have happened. Where it not for Valve's achievement challenge, I would likely never have remembered that it sat there, unplayed, among my Steam collection.

That would have been a shame. I was expecting to trudge for half an hour in a children's game - after all, it's a game about pirate dogs - and I found myself engrossed in one of the nicest Secret of Monkey Island homages I've known.

Homage. That's a curiously absent word in the world of videogames. Copy, clone, remake,"spiritual successor" are terms much more commonly employed, and in truth, there are few games worthy of being called "homages", games that successfully thread that fine line between gentle nods at what went before and doing their own thing. Jolly Rover nails it.

It nails it with the main character, a lovable, resourceful fool, but a fool all the same. It nails it with it's light hearted tale of swashbuckling that touches all the classic monkey island troupes - pirate life, voodoo magic, silly romance, spiritual advice from dead parents - without outright copying them. It nails it with clever puzzles that bring on the funny without being needlessly obtuse.

And the dialog is so nice. It's not Portal 2, of course, but it's nicely written and delivered with care, and while being happy about this is more indicative of the low standards of writing and acting in games than it is about this particulars game quality, it still is more enjoyable for it.

Jolly Rover is a very simple game, to be sure, and made simpler even by the overabundance of crackers, that can be given to your pirate companion in exchange for puzzle solutions. It's also on the short side, clocking at around 6 hours for a very through play. But it is a very happy game. It takes me to my happy place, a place of talking pirate dogs.

I score it an YAAAAAAAAAR!

Welcome to the Master Race - why I've fallen in love with the gaming PC

I could feel her purr at my touch, my hand softly sliding over her shiny ebon skin. It was the purr of a lioness, powerful yet graceful. And she was at my beck and call - after all, I had created her.

"Frostmourne", I had called her, her shiny blue leds  giving out an aura of cool. After the final upgrade, a new, huge, cooler, I slid her side closed and listened to her hum as I pressed the power button.

A bit later, there I was in the Nevada Desert, post-apocalypse. I was in awe the moment I entered the wasteland with max graphical settings on. Crisp scenery as far as the eye could see, nary a frame dropped bellow 60. Yes, I thought, this is how God games. On a PC.

And after an hour of play, my Frostmourne decided that it was about time to show she would not be wielded so easily. She reset.

Now the true game was on. A game of assembly and disassembly, of benchmarks and running temperature and voltage monitors, of firmware upgrades and memchecks. Arthas had gotten to know this truth as well: power has a cost.

It would be much simpler - and weak that I am, I have sometimes considered it, it shames me to admit - to just game on a console. Just put the DVD on and play without a care in the world, slouched on the sofa.

Why do we do it, then, the PC faithful? Why do we proclaim the PC to be the One True Game System, and suffer her quirks, her bugs, her restrictive DRMs and her endless technical taunts?

Because, harsh mistress that she may be, we love her. We love both the power and the quest for it.

Yes, it goes beyond gaming at resolutions that the console crowd barely dreams exist, with triple-digit framerates and true hi-res textures. It goes beyond the rich indie scene that gives that unequaled sensation of being at the frontier of the medium.

It goes deeper, near the gear-head that gets elbow-deep in his car's engine. It's about fighting the machine, taming the machine, knowing that that silky smooth framerate was hard earned through dozens of purchase decisions, optimization and tests.

It's about getting to know how to setup your fans to create maximum airflow in order to cool off that monster of a graphics card that you just overclocked and no, no sane person would put water anywhere near inside a PC so thankyouverymuch give me the biggest air cooler you've got.

It's about the challenge, the taming. It's about earning your system, not merely paying for it.

My Playstation 3, she sits in a corner, booted up for the odd exclusive that always leaves me thinking how much better it would be on the PC. Same with the Xbox and the Wii.

Now Frostmourne? The frost bites every now and then, aye. But the way she purrs under my grip...

And Yet it Sucks - a belated opinion on the electronic game "And Yet It Moves"

Indie games are weird. Not always, mind, but most of the time. Some times they are pretty little things with a very artsy look and everyone - professional reviewers, forumites, youtube superstars, etc - eats them up and myopically praises them for advancing the medium as an art form. But do they really?
Thanks to the Steam Addiction Month, I played through such a game, And Yet It Moves, one that I remember the internet raving about as a work of beauty. Now, far removed from the wave of hype and praise, I kept wondering where did that experience exist to begin with.There's much to be said about building a complex game full of emerging possibilities from simple rules. AYIM gets half of that right. 

You move left or right, you jump, and you rotate the world. Falling accelerates you, and if you pick up too much speed you get splattered upon landing. Here lies my first problem with it. The acceleration mechanic seems arbitrary. Throughout all the ten stages, I could never get a sure handle on how far I could make myself fall and survive. Sometimes all it took to pick up too much speed was turning the world a couple of times mid-jump, while in some other circumstances large falls went unpunished. In fact, a good deal of the game was trial-and-error play.

And there is very little in the way of complexity emerging from simple rules. The game only truly finds its feet on the last third, and more because of it finally upping the challenge a bit, rather than allowing us to discover new stuff to do with the main mechanic. 

Now, of course it looks nice. The paper art style is quite unique and charming, and the few narrative elements are suitably subjective - to me, the white paper sprite's quest to find and merge with the piece of white paper at the end of each stage was a quest to belong, maybe a metaphor for returning home. Beautiful stuff, yes, but it could do with a bit less boring game. I really get the feeling that, first time around, this game got a free pass on account of the artfulness it exhibits. 

It was fun, yes, but only after a slog through two thirds of the game. It is pretty, charming even, and made by a small team that tried something new, plus it is a cheap game, but none of these reasons will magically make a boring game good. There are plenty of innovative, artful indie games that are fun - or scary, or introspective, or whatever they aim to make the player feel -  from start to finish; this is just not one of them.I score it a couple of oranges and a peach.