Character Issues II: The Prodigy

Note: The following originally appeared in the May 13, 2014 edition of Our Town

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four columns detailing video game characters.

This is the real Jo. Accept no substitutes.
Image courtesy of grantkirkhope.com

Are you ready for a hot video game take? Well, here you go — “Perfect Dark” is one of my favorite first-person shooters ever. For reasons I’ve never been able to understand, everyone forgets about it, even among the ranks of Nintendo 64 shooters, opting for “GoldenEye” instead. But Perfect Dark did much of what its spiritual predecessor did, and better. There were multiplayer modes, cooler weapons, a longer story mode, and bots so you could play multiplayer against the computer. But one thing always impressed me about the game — the story. 

Now, “Perfect Dark’s” story is pretty silly. You’ve got ancient weapons stuck on the bottom of the ocean, a sentient AI, the National Security Agency director cloning the president, and a friendly alien named Elvis. It’s like the writers at Rare stole the plot for a SyFy Channel original movie. But they actually did a pretty good job with the characters, none more than the protagonist, Joanna Dark.

See, back in 2000, female protagonists were few and far between. There was Samus, and Lara Croft, and Terra/Celes from “Final Fantasy VI,” and, um, that’s about it. Dropping a woman into a genre that had, up to that point, been dominated by gruff space marines was definitely a bold move. So how to go about endearing Joanna to the masses? It’s a two-step process, really. First, give her a cool British accent. Everyone loves British accents. Second, make her incredibly talented. The latter probably mattered more.

Here is Joanna’s backstory in its entirety: She is an agent for the Carrington Institute, a globetrotting philanthropic group and anti-terrorist task force. When she joined, she crushed the scores of every trainee ever, earning her the nickname Perfect Dark. She’s inexperienced, but in terms of pure ability, she’s unmatched. So she keeps getting thrown into crazier and crazier situations, which she handles with the good-natured aplomb and unflappability of a certain other British secret agent. The only weakness she really has is that she’s pretty new to the job. And, to be fair, most everyone is new to missions like saving the president from the NSA and clearing out an alien attack ship.

For her part, Joanna plays the ever-dutiful agent. However, the difference between her and the legions of other FPS characters who wordlessly plow through Nazis, demons, or some combination of both, Joanna has a personality. Yeah, she kind of has a tendency to vocalize her internal monologue and say things that function as cues that you’re supposed to complete an objective here, but it’s a pretty easy way to let the player know what they’re supposed to be doing. She also shines in her interactions with the other major characters, like showing the proper deference to the president when dealing with him or the bickering she does with the Institute’s only other active field agent, Jonathan. It’s a nice refresher from the more modern protagonists who only seem to exist as silent observers in their worlds.

Another part of Joanna that makes her stand out, especially when you consider she first appeared in 2000, is that she never falls prey to the trap that has sunk many a character-trying too hard to be cool. The fact that Joanna doesn’t feel the need to use cheesy one-liners or act overly aloof. She’s in control of the situation at all times. She always seems to know what to do. And that feeds the mystique of the perfect agent. She’s not just competent. She’s totally focused and pretty much personifies her code name, whether it’s a stealth mission, a rescue or an assault.

When “Perfect Dark” came out, the Nintendo Power review contained the tagline “Somebody’s perfect.” While that referred to the game, it also referred to the heroine, or at least the perception of her.

There’s always something compelling about the person who is absurdly good at what they do.

It’s why news stories of 12-year-olds in college always draw attention and the world stops to watch LeBron James demolish the NBA. Joanna hasn’t undergone incredible amounts of training and she’s not someone chosen by fate to save the world. She’s just that good. Somebody’s perfect, indeed.

Character Issues I: The Psycho

Note: The following originally appeared in the May 6, 2013 edition of Our Town

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of four columns detailing video game characters.

Isn’t he just a ray of sunshine?
Image courtesy of Destructoid

Video game universes are weird spaces. In the vast majority of genres, you’re going to have to kill something, whether it’s octopi that shoot rocks, aliens, terrorists, or dragons. And most characters do this with an alarmingly degree of detachment. Unless the plot calls for a death to be a big deal, you’ll be mowing down enemies without a care in the world. So what kind of person could actually do that?

The Trevor Phillips kind, that’s the kind that could do that.

Trevor is one of the three protagonists in Grand Theft Auto V and one of the more memorable game characters ever. You know that character Francis in the movie Stripes? The one who says he’ll kill you at the drop of a hat? Trevor is actually like that. In the first five minutes you meet him, he beats a biker to death. He has a special series of missions which are him going into berserk mode and killing people. He delivers random passersby to a cult in the mountains. In one of the game’s most notorious and unsettling scenes, he tortures a guy.

Trevor is a flat-out sociopath. He’s violent, angry, and impulsive. He kills without remorse and has no problems doing whatever he deems necessary to reach his goals. He’s also brutally honest, never denying exactly what he’s going to do and doing so in the most nonchalant way possible.

There’s always a dissonance between what’s going on in the plot and what your character’s actually doing on screen. Trevor is the attempt to actually eliminate that dissonance. He’s perfectly at home in the bizarre world of Grand Theft Auto, where amassing a staggering body count isn’t really that big a deal. He’s the same guy in cutscenes that he is during gameplay. And as such, he becomes becomes completely fascinating.

You absolutely have to see what he’s going to do next. It probably doesn’t hurt that Trevor is extremely competent at what he does, even if that’s running guns and selling drugs. He’s a skilled pilot and sniper. He has at least some business sense and this weird charisma that draws people to him despite the fact that he is clearly really dangerous. Maybe it’s because he’s very close to a pure libertine, doing whatever he wants at all times, with no regard for any of society’s rules.

But psycho killer types are, quite honestly, a dime a dozen in games. You can’t throw an ax without hitting some relentless, heartless murderer. But Trevor, well, Trevor is kind of different. He has some reasonable approximation of a heart. Unlike your run of the mill sociopaths, Trevor possesses the ability to care about people. Now, it’s really few people, like his co-protagonists Franklin and Michael or Michael’s kids, but he’s extremely devoted to them. At points, he’s even shown to really, really need love and affection, producing a bizarre dichotomy between the killer and the codependent.

This doesn’t even take into account Trevor’s warped, but somehow existent, moral compass. He wipes out the super-racist Civil Border Patrol because he thinks what their random harassment of legal citizens is wrong. He kidnaps a crime lord’s wife because said crime lord mistreats her. Despite torturing a guy, he later says that torture is worthless as an interrogation technique and is really only a dominance thing. This is the same guy who murders people for referencing his Canadian heritage.

After the GTA V’s release, Rockstar bigwig Dan Houser said in an interview that Trevor was a real change for a protagonist, representing pure chaos and the guy who had a heart when it suited him. No one could ever really consider Trevor a hero. He’s an unpredictable psycho who sometimes has a moral code. He’s perfectly acclimated to world of video games that are so reliant on killing one’s enemies to succeed. And he’s the most memorable part of an already great game.

Good, bad-he’s the guy with the gun. And occasionally the grenade launcher.

 

April is the Cruelest Month

Note: The following originally appeared in the April 29, 2014 edition of Our Town

About five months ago, I wrote about how the PS4 was off to a good start. It wasn’t the greatest console launch ever or anything, but there were some good games that did an admirable job of showcasing the new hardware. So, checking in almost half a year later, has there been anything to really up the ante?

Nope.

The first four months of this year have been among the slowest I’ve ever seen. All we’ve really gotten of note from the next-gen consoles has been Titanfall. The revival of Thief kind of got hammered in reviews. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was a $40 extended demo. Infamous: Second Son is the definition of solid but unspectacular. Even the latest World of Warcraft killer, The Elder Scrolls Online, has released to lukewarm reviews. There just isn’t a whole lot out there right now.  It’s kind of a wasteland.

There are really only four games thus far that I would really categorize as great: Bravely Default; Danganronpa; Dark Souls II; and South Park: The Stick of Truth. Note that I’ve written about three of those four. And to really underscore how little the next-gen consoles have done, the former two are on portable systems and the latter two are on the PS3 and 360, the newly-minted last generation.

Now, this isn’t unique to this console generation. The now-dominant 3DS looked like a disaster mid to late 2012. The PS3 and Wii both experienced some pretty significant droughts soon after launch and it took the 360 a couple years to really bring the pain, finally running out Bioshock, Halo 3, and Mass Effect within three months of each other. And the PS2 had to wait over a year before it started to put together a formidable library. It’s always going to take a while for developers to really figure out how to optimize a console’s performance. That’s not to say it isn’t annoying, however.

It’s never fun to look at your expensive, rhomboid piece of plastic sitting there doing nothing as you catch up on that Skyrim run you never bothered to actually finish. It’s a reminder that being an early adopter is often not the best route, as there’s going to be a lot of downtime before your brand new toy is going to show its true form and really start paying dividends. And there really isn’t anything else to do besides wait, as cutting and running is a bad idea, because eventually the games will come and you’ll have to buy the console again. And no one wins then.

And the games are coming. This year alone will likely see the releases of Destiny, Dragon Age: Inquisition, The Order: 1886, Watch Dogs, and others. That’s not even including the yearly releases like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. There’s a lot to like if you just wait for it.

But what to do while waiting? That’s where I come in! The obvious answer is to finally get into the portable systems. The 3DS has been dominating for a while now and the Vita is finally, and quietly, putting together a good library. You might as well take the chance to start exploring what these systems have to offer. Broaden your horizons a little and you might find your favorite new companion for your next long trip or boring commute. Please don’t play these systems while driving, though. That’s really dangerous and probably illegal.

Your other option is to dust off your old systems and get into retro stuff. Retro gaming bigger than ever right now, with people wanting to replay their childhood favorites left and right. Most old games are cheaper than buying new ones anyway unless you’ve got some really high-end gaming tastes. And if you’re being completely honest with yourself, that pang of self-worth you get for remembering the locations of the warp whistles in Super Mario Bros. 3 is a little stronger than the one you get for winning a round in Titanfall.

So yes, it can be pretty boring right now to be a gamer. This year isn’t shaping up to be the greatest ever or anything, but stick with it and it’ll get better. I hope. If it doesn’t, I’m going to end up looking silly and no one wants that.

Note: Things are also slow enough in current-gen releases that it’s allowing me to do something special for the month of May. For all four weeks, I’ll be writing about some of my favorite game characters ever. Please get the appropriate level of hype.

Dream a Little Dream of Mars

Note: The following originally appeared in the April 22, 2014 edition of Our Town

It’s Earth Day, which is one of those holidays where the jokes kind of write themselves. Oh? There’s already a humor column on that? Well, that makes this a bit easier. Here at Welcome to Bonus Stage, we’re going to celebrate the only way we know how — by talking about a game set on Mars.

Seriously.

Back in the early days of the PC gaming, Origin Software’s “Ultima” series carried considerable weight as one of the premier sources for role-playing games.

The ongoing saga of the Avatar and his (or her) adventures in Britannia was popular enough that six games were released by 1990, prompting creator Richard “Lord British” Garriott to launch a spinoff series: “Ultima: Worlds of Adventure.” The first, “The Savage Empire,” was a pastiche of Meso-American things and Doyle’s “The Lost World.”

But we’re here to talk about the second, 1991’s “Martian Dreams.”

“Martian Dreams” is set in a Victorian world where famed astronomer and Mars canal theorist Percival Lowell decided to investigate Mars in the best way he knew possible: through a giant cannon that shot a bullet through space all the way to Mars. Sadly, while Lowell was leading a group of the era’s greatest luminaries on a tour of the cannon at 1893’s Columbian Exposition, someone — SPOILER ALERT: It’s the one blatantly evil character in the game, Rasputin — ignited the fuse and shot everyone off to Mars, which is unfortunate, as there’s at least one Nobel laureate and a future U.S. President there.

Fast forward to 1901, when Nikola Tesla, who’s palling around with Sigmund Freud for some reason, decides to mount his own expedition from his Colorado facility.

The Avatar and his buddy, Dr. Spector (based on Origin’s Warren Spector, who would go on to create “Deus Ex” and “Thief”) travel through time from 1991 to help out and then the two of you are off to Mars, accompanied by legendary reporter Nellie Bly.

“Martian Dreams” plays like all other “Ultima” games from this time period, with all battles taking place in real time on the world map as you battle various forms of Martian flora/fauna otherwise known as “plantimals.” Interestingly enough, you don’t really have to engage in combat very often with these creatures, which include the planther and the creeping cactus, the latter of which will absolutely wreck you in big groups. As a review from “Computer Gaming World” surmised, “Martian Dreams” is a lot closer to an adventure game in many parts than a traditional role-playing experience.

And what adventures you will have. While your goal is to get Lowell’s expedition back to Earth, you’re going to have to rebuild a lot of the advanced Martian society in order to do so. You’ll restore power to the planet with the help of Thomas Edison, refill the canals by melting the ice caps with the help of some quick glass repair work on the part of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and storm Rasputin’s fortress with the help of Andrew Carnegie’s cannonballs. And then there’s the whole Martian dreams thing, too.

See, the Martians were big into dreams (Hey, that’s why Freud is there!), and when their society collapsed, they transferred their collective consciousness (No, Jung is not in this game) into Dream Machines, which some of the Lowell expedition unwittingly activated, transferring the Martians into the humans and trapping our eminent Victorians in the Dream Machine.

So the dreams are a big part of the game, even containing a reference or two to previous “Ultima” games.

As a spinoff in a series that hasn’t really seen a release since 1999’s disastrous “Ultima IX,” it’s not a surprise that “Martian Dreams” is kind of forgotten. Obviously, it shouldn’t be. Few games can take plots this crazy, throw them into historical context, and produce a workable game, much less make them fun.

This is probably the only game in existence where you get makeup tips from Sarah Bernhardt and get “Communism for Dummies” from Lenin.

There are a lot of games out there that play like “Martian Dreams,” but none that really replicate the atmosphere. It’s one of my favorite games ever made and thanks to EA’s beneficence, it’s now available for free on gog.com.

This is a game that played no small part in my interest in the Victorian era, whether on Mars or not. When they said “Ultima: Worlds of Adventure,” they meant definitely meant WORLDS of adventure.

Dream on.

It’s Hip to Be Square

Note: The following originally appeared in the April 15, 2014 edition of Our Town

Originally, this was going to be a column about the power of happy endings in games. It was going to be at least partially inspired by how silly and contrived the last episode of “How I Met Your Mother” was solely to give us something like a happy ending.

But something bigger happened, something that changed this column.

The Undertaker lost at Wrestlemania.

You see, prior to April 6, when he lost to Brock Lesnar, the Undertaker was 21-0 at Wrestlemania. Yes, I realize wrestling is fake, but the Streak was still nothing short of astonishing. It spanned the terms of four U.S. presidents, saw some of the greatest matches of all time and, in recent years, was a de facto main event. It was an unprecedented run of greatness and we will never see anything like it again.

You’re probably wondering how this ties in with video games. Well, just like losses in wrestling are inevitable, bad games are inevitable. No matter how good a developer is, they’ll eventually put out something that will end a run of good titles, break their streak, as it were.

Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, Bethesda, Bioware, Rockstar, the list goes on. Running up a multi-year streak of great releases is just impossible, right?

Not exactly. Gaming has, or had, its own Undertaker. It had Square. Not Square Enix. Just Square.

Somehow, this column has been going on for the better part of a year and I’ve completely avoided Square, which is honestly kind of amazing. This is the company that, starting in the early ‘90s and all the way to 2003, was the prime producer of role-playing games for American audiences and, in an incredible run, produced some of the best games ever.

The Square streak brought us “Final Fantasy IV” through “Final Fantasy X,” “Chrono Trigger,” “Super Mario RPG,” “Secret of Mana” and “Xenogears.” It effectively and singlehandedly popularized strategy role-playing games with “Final Fantasy Tactics,” and even saw some forays — more successful than others — into other genres, like shoot ‘em ups with “Einhander,” fighting games with “Bushido Blade” and survival horror with “Parasite Eve.”

Square’s defection from Nintendo to Sony ended up being a key component in the PlayStation vs. Nintendo 64 war. It even brought us the crossover to end all crossovers with Disney and Final Fantasy in “Kingdom Hearts.”

This doesn’t even include some of the more obscure, but still great, RPG properties that Square put out, like the “Saga” games, or some that never made it to America, like “Bahamut Lagoon” and “Treasure of the Rudras.”

To put it simply, Square was unstoppable.

To really put it into perspective, Square games during this era were so good that RPGs were actually mainstream. Compared to today, when RPGs often seem to get pigeonholed as either being filled with moeblob (a derisive term for entirely unremarkable, generically cute characters drawn in an anime style) casts, micromanagement that makes you throw up your hands, or sometimes both in frightening combinations, the Square streak gave us games that effortlessly catered to every demographic.

Those games had it all. Massive swords, giant robots, opera, “Power Rangers” knockoffs, bird racing and frogs slashing mountains in half — they were all there.

There were epic political struggles of love and betrayal, quests for identity, Mickey Mouse saving the universe and pasts that refused to change. And seasoned gamers can likely identify what game each of those elements references. They were memorable and everyone was a part of the magic.

But, just like the Undertaker’s streak, all good things must come to an end.

Square put out some clunkers, like “The Bouncer” and “Unlimited Saga,” merged with their former archrival Enix, and then kind of cratered. Sure, there are some good Square Enix games out there like “Deus Ex: Human Revolution” and the 2013 “Tomb Raider,” but there are a lot more people who see garbage mobile games and Lightning Returns and say things like, “Man, I miss ‘Chrono Trigger.’”

Word on the street is that the Undertaker decided that the streak should end because he didn’t think he could perform at a high level anymore and wanted to go out before his match quality really declined.

Well, as a business, Square really couldn’t do that, so they’ve kept making games and their stock in the gaming world continues to go down. And now those memories of the great times seem farther and farther away with each release.

Maybe it’s time we let go and let Square rest in peace.

The Greatest Games Ever Staged

Note: The following originally appeared in the April 8, 2014 edition of Our Town.

Fun fact time! Chris Jericho and Big Show appear in three of these four games.

I am the game, and you do not want to play me. Finally, Welcome to Bonus Stage has come back to Our Town. And this week we’re celebrating a new year of sorts.

You see, Wrestlemania XXX was this past Sunday, so it’s a new year in the pro wrestling world. And that means it’s as good a time as any to discuss the best wrestling games ever made.

Those four games are “WCW vs. nWo World Tour,” WCW/nWo Revenge,” “WWF Wrestlemania 2000,” and “WWF No Mercy,” all developed by AKI and released by THQ.

The four games, which were released between late 1997 (“World Tour” even came with a poster for the disaster that was Starrcade ‘97) and late 2000, are easy to group together as all are based on the exact same fighting engine. Every character has an array of striking and weak grapple moves to soften up your opponents, and then a set of stronger grapple moves when you want to go all “Here come the pain!” on them.

Of course, the highlight for any wrestling fan was going to be the signature special moves, which you only were allowed to use when you powered up your spirit/attitude meter to the max and were ready to unleash such destruction that JR would probably yell to stop the match. And in all four games, the finishing maneuvers for every wrestler are present. You’ll get to feel the bang with Diamond Dallas Page’s Diamond Cutter, go coast to coast with Shane McMahon, and if you want to do the Steiner Recliner, Big Poppa Pump is definitely your hookup.

And these moves actually look pretty good! Undertaker’s Tombstone actually looks like the Tombstone instead of the two wrestlers just kind of getting put together in a blob and it’s infinitely better than having his special move be shooting ghosts from his hands. That actually happened in one game. It was strange. Giving the feeling of actually controlling your favorite wrestlers in a match is a huge part of any game in this genre and an area where these four games never disappointed.

Another area which always impressed me was how all four games built on each other. One of the most common complaints about franchises today is that each release is just the previous one with a new coat of pain.

Oh, it’s true. It’s true. But each game added new options.

“Revenge” put in entrances, managers and a much larger roster. “Wrestlemania 2000” added actual entrance music, a full career mode and the vaunted create-a-wrestler. And “No Mercy” finally threw in unlockable moves and ring gear, a story mode with actual storylines and new modes like a ladder match, which also served as an effective TLC match. You’ll never be so excited to yell at D-Von to get the tables.

And any discussion, especially of the two WWF games, has to include something about the create-a-wrestler function. These two games were the first to actually let you create a wrestler from scratch. Unlike previous games, where you got to customize appearance to some extent, but were always left taking an existing wrestler’s moveset wholesale, you had full control here.

You could load up on the most powerful moves and make your guy a juggernaut, which I may have done with my own character, Dr. Pat, who dominated with his finishers, the Hope Diamond and the Patmission.

Or you could create other real wrestlers. Or you could create celebrity characters. My “No Mercy” game definitely still has Bill Clinton as a created wrestler. Let me tell you something, brother, the sky was the limit here.

Now, by today’s standards, the presentation in the games is lacking. There’s no online play, obviously. The wrestler models don’t exactly hold up. The Titantron videos will likely hurt your eyes. And the customization options are far less comprehensive than modern wrestling games. But these games are still insanely fun to play. I fired up “No Mercy” only a couple weeks ago and beat the tar out of Road Dogg with Stone Cold.

These games are like little time capsules of one of wrestling’s most popular eras and, all nostalgia aside, completely torch their more modern counterparts in pure fun. And as sports games, kinda, they only cost a few bucks. So pick them up now.

And that’s the bottom line.

How to Succeed at the Internet Without Really Trying

Note: The following originally appeared in the April 1, 2014 edition of Our Town as part of an April Fools column switch.  Welcome to Bonus Stage’s regular programming will resume next week.

Respect. Adulation. We all want it. It’s a part of the human condition that we want others to recognize how awesome we are. But it’s time for me to drop a knowledge bomb on you.

You can’t make everyone respect you. It doesn’t matter if you’re LeBron James, Chris Christie or Amy Adams — who is clearly not respected enough as she got robbed of an Oscar again this year. Some people just flat-out aren’t going to respect you.

So you have to prioritize who you want to respect you. And your priorities should be people like your family, friends, co-workers or significant other. Those are the people whose opinions matter.

Haha no, I’m only joking. The people you really need to impress are random strangers on the Internet.

Think about it. The Internet is bigger than all of those other groups combined.

“But Patrick,” you’re probably asking yourself, “how do I get people to respect me on the Internet? It seems really hard.”

Well, you’re in luck, as I’m about to hit you with all you need to become the hottest thing on the Internet since Gangnam Style and that one shirt with wolves on it.

I’m going to presume that you don’t want to work very hard at this. After all, working hard at becoming an Internet personality means less time for important things, like fantasy sports and watching stuff on Netflix. Again, you have to prioritize. So how do you get to be the next big (Internet) thing with as little effort as possible?

You become a commenter, that’s how.

Commenters are the frosting on top of the cake of, well, anything on the Internet. Articles, videos, pictures, it doesn’t really matter. Everything has a comments section these days. And if you play your cards right, you can make people skip right past that article to see what brilliant minds such as yours have to say instead.

This is the part where you have to decide where you’re going to be a commenter. Your first inclination might be to set up shop on YouTube, as it’s one of the most popular sites out there and every videos has comments.

Then again, you might be worried that you’re not ready for the spotlight like that. Here’s some free advice: If you have a working keyboard, you are eminently qualified to be a YouTube commenter. That place is collectively a cesspool of poor spelling, delusional superfans and spambots. If the YouTube comments section were a physical country, it would be a failed state. So let’s just eliminate that as an option right now and save you a bit of time.

Instead, I’d advocate choosing a special interest and going with that. Do you like politics? Then hop on over to Huffington Post and start spewing insults, I mean “debating,” to your heart’s content. Debating people online will garner you tons of fans who’ll pop into every discussion you join. You might also get a lot of hate, but you know who also gets a lot of hate? Important people. So keep at it!

Maybe you like video games. Well, declare your allegiance to your chosen console or the PC Master Race and get to work developing a seething hatred for anyone whose tastes differ from yours.

Remember, you are the important one here and people will always respect your bold, unflappable demeanor as you talk about frame rates and resolution. Or, even better, show off your dazzling e-lawyer skills by talking about copyright law. Everyone respects e-lawyers. Trust me on this.

But the problem with being the purveyor of truth and knowledge in politics or gaming is that eventually you’ll have to give actual opinions, and that’s a ton of work. And remember, you don’t want to work at this. There has to be a way to get respect through sound bites alone, right? Well, thanks to TV pioneers like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, it is possible thanks to the world of sports commenting.

Commenting on sports is about one two things: Hot takes or jokes. It’s one or the other, so choose wisely. You’re either the guy saying Carmelo is hot garbage or you’re the guy making a joke about how his expensive watch habit is a waste of money as nothing connected to Carmelo’s body ever passes, even watch hands.

Hot takes are probably the easier of the two, as they’re all visceral. Stats? HA! Who needs those when you understand the game at such a deep level as you do.

If some nerdy stat nerd brings up numbers to support his argument that Yasiel Puig is really good, respond that Puig doesn’t have the grit or scrappiness to be an elite player. Also, that nerd clearly never played pro ball like you. Well, you didn’t play either, but you’d have a couple most valuable player trophies by now if that coach in Legion ball didn’t have it out for you.

People will be drawn to your fearless attitude and ability to tell it like it is.

But maybe you don’t want to have hot takes. Maybe you just want to make puns or jokes about Brett Favre’s unfortunate dalliance with a cellphone camera. Perfect! Hop on over to the Deadspin and start commenting away. Those +1s your jokes get are like little pieces of self-worth that you get because strangers think you’re funny or insightful.

Treasure them always. And (PROTIP) if you go this route, actually be funny. Things will end poorly if you’re not.

Some people might tell you that the advice given here isn’t going to actually make you an Internet legend and that being a commenter is a waste of time. Those people are wrong and are likely telling you this because no one ever gives their comments a thumbs up.

When you’re not around, they probably causally name drop you, saying things like “Yeah, I know Torii Hunter Straight Mashes in real life. Don’t act like you’re not impressed.”

So what are you waiting for? Get commenting! And if you’ll excuse me, I have to go make a joke about how Sam Cassell looks like a baby alien.

You died. Again.

Note: The following originally appeared in the March 25, 2014 edition of Our Town.

I have a bit of an, oh, let’s call it an idiosyncrasy while playing games. Whenever I’m fighting any boss that has a visible life bar and I’m preparing for what I think will be the final blow, I say “Die for me, (insert boss name here)!”

Sometimes, I might wag my finger at the screen ala Dikembe Mutombo and say “Not in my house,” or do a fist pump, but “Die for me” is the real constant.

It’s not unnatural to experience some sense of satisfaction at making progress in a game. Winning is fun, after all. But this satisfaction is usually one-sided. Games don’t take perverse pleasure in breaking you. Usually.

Welcome to “Dark Souls II.”

“Dark Souls II” released on the PlayStation 3 and XBox 360 on March 11, with a PC version soon to follow. Despite its name, this is actually the third entry into From Software’s “Souls” games, with the first being “Demons Souls” in 2009 and the second being “Dark Souls” in 2011.

The “Souls” games are medieval action, role-playing games in the vein of the “Elder Scrolls” series, but with one key difference-the “Souls” games are brutally difficult. And “Dark Souls II” is the hardest yet. You know that column I wrote a few weeks ago about games not being as hard these days? “Dark Souls II” is an exception to that.

Absolutely nothing is explained to you. If you miss the tutorial portion of the first area, it is conceivable that you could end up in the main hub, Majula, with no idea how to attack, jump or use items. This gets especially harrowing when coupled with the biggest feature in “Dark Souls II” — the dying.

I’m going to be completely honest. You’re going to die in “Dark Souls II.” A lot. You’ll fall off cliffs. You’ll get ambushed or swarmed by generic enemies. You’ll go up against a boss who will absolutely wreck you — I’m looking at you, Lost Sinner. And every time you die, you’ll lose all your souls, which serve as both in-game currency and the means to level up your character.

And you regain your souls by making it back to where you were killed. If you get killed before getting your souls back, they’re gone for good, which means you’ll have potentially lost a good amount of progress. But that’s always been a feature of the “Souls” games. “Dark Souls II” adds an additional element.

When you die, you lose a little bit of your maximum hit points, which means that you’ll be weaker. And each successive time you bite the dust, your health goes down even more, all the way until you start at half health, which is a massive handicap and means that there’s a decent chance that enemies can one-shot you. This process is reversible through a semi-rare item called a Human Effigy or through exploiting a certain ring you find fairly early, but it’s still a real pain to deal with.

This hasn’t even touched on the multiplayer aspect. One of the most novel aspects of any “Souls” game is how it handles multiplayer, which isn’t a traditional part of action RPGs. In “Dark Souls II,” you can summon other players as phantoms to help you out with particularly tough stretches (read: boss battles) through jolly cooperation or, if you’re unlucky, you can get invaded and forced into a battle with another player. It adds an element of randomness to the game that requires you to be especially prepared.

So what is there in “Dark Souls II” besides the difficulty? Well, believe it or not, there’s a lot. The ruined kingdom of Drangleic, where your cursed character will be fighting legions of monsters, is a massive world with a ton of areas, all offering varied experiences. From the first time that you step out of the cave from the tutorial area to the gorgeous, rocky seashore of Majula, with its permanently setting Sun, you’ll know you’re in for a special experience.

And then there’s the story.

“Dark Souls II” prefers to reveal its story slowly, through your interactions with various characters, instead of dropping exposition on you. All that you really know at the beginning is that you have a terrible curse and you should go see the King of Drangleic, as it’s about the only chance you have to be cured. More or less, it’s your not to reason why, yours but to do and die.

“Dark Souls II” is not for everybody. If you’re looking for something quick and mindless to blow through, this is not the game for you. You will have to work for every little victory and it will be glorious every time you down a boss or reach that new bonfire (save/warp point) in a dangerous area.

My plucky little cleric, Alice, has perished many times on her journey and I suspect she will continue to do so all the way until the end. But when you go through the looking glass, you’re not expecting anything less than a great challenge. If you’re up to it, fire this one up. But I do have a question.

“Dark Souls II,” I want you to do just one more thing for me.

Would you die for me? Please …?

We are All Witnesses-Twitch Plays Pokemon

Note: The following originally appeared in the March 11, 2014 edition of Our Town

You have no idea ho hard this was.
Image courtesy of ibitimes.co.uk

Sometimes it’s nice to take a break from writing about specific games and discuss a gaming-related event instead. This week, it’s, well, I don’t how to describe it exactly. You know what? Let’s just get into it. We’re talking about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

On February 12, 2014, an Australian programmer came up with a brilliant idea: he would stream a game of Pokemon Red on game hosting site Twitch. But this game would be different. Twitch would collectively control the action through the chat function. If you enter “up,” the character moves up. If you hit “start,” then the menu opens. Now realize that thousands of people would be entering inputs at any given time and you’re well on your way to seeing why this was such a different idea. Actually, Twitch estimates that at any given time, 80,000 people were watching, with at least 10% of the viewership participating, so you really would have thousands of people entering inputs at once.

There was a lot of walking in circles, opening and closing the menu repeatedly, trying to buy items, and unsuccessful attempts to switch battle order. It also resulted in some really useful Pokemon getting released into the wild, though somehow it never resulted in the Master Ball getting thrown away. It got bad enough that after a dedicated group of trolls got our intrepid trainer Red stuck in the Rocket Hideout for a couple days (and I mean days, as in 24-hour increments), that a system entitled “Democracy” was allowed to be enacted. Instead of the usual “Anarchy” which could get you stuck navigating a ledge for an extended period of time (this actually happened; it took everyone 16 hours to navigate one ledge), Democracy tabulated votes over a period of a few seconds and entered the most popular result. To be honest, that was the only way that certain areas of the game were ever going to get completed. And let’s not even get into Twitch battling Pokemon. Actually, let’s do that right now.

Battles were, for lack of a better term, a total clown show. Did you know that you can’t run from a trainer battle? Because if not, get ready to have that fact drilled into your head over and over and over. Due to the limited number of options in battle and the incredible number of inputs, players did very silly things a lot, like try to run from trainer battles, use worthless moves, not learn useful moves, and, most famously, repeatedly trying to use an item, but instead using the Helix Fossil, which will be discussed later.

Most battles, especially against the Elite Four, which, if we’re being perfectly honest, aren’t regularly that hard, were white-knuckle affairs, like the battle against Giovanni which resulted in hours of lost progress because a non-damaging move being used by Bird Jesus. Oh, right. You should probably know who Bird Jesus is.

Like anything that is thrown onto the internet for any appreciable amount of time, Twitch Plays Pokemon developed its own lingo and mythology. The Helix Fossil that got “used” all the time in the menu? People decided that ol’ Red was consulting the Helix Fossil for advice, and thus the Modern Church of Helix was born. All of the party Pokemon had nicknames, like Bird Jesus, the extremely high-level Pidgeot that was used to steamroll much of the game, or All-Terrain Venomoth, the Venomoth (it’s a moth!) which, due to a logic bug, defeated a freaking DRAGON by poisoning it during one of the Elite Four battles.

And the day which resulted in a ton of Pokemon getting released was known as Bloody Sunday. There was even an entire religious struggle between Lord Helix and his rival, Lord Dome, involving the False Prophet Flareon, which was developed in more depth than 99.9% of all Pokemon fanfiction, all arising organically from the event.

On March 1, after 391 hours, Twitch beat Pokemon when Zapdos, aka Battery Jesus, defeated a Blastoise and Red became Pokemon League Champion. The internet, as a hivemind, beat a video game. I don’t know if there’s really anything useful to be gleaned from this so-called social experiment, but I can say that it was, well, an experience to watch it. Twitch has since moved on to playing Pokemon Crystal, but it can’t match the first time, with all of the craziness, the tense moments, and the silly memes. I can safely say that if I ever have kids, I will tell them about Twitch Plays Pokemon.

Or not.

All hail Lord Helix.

 

 

Easy Mode: Games Just Aren’t as Hard Anymore

Note: The following originally appeared in the March 4, 2014 edition of Our Town

Do you want to get some instant street cred on a gaming message board? Great! Then all you have to do is type the following into any topic: “Games today are way too easy.” Instant credibility. It’s not like this is some huge revelation. Games are, by and large, easier than they used to be. Even hard games are a different kind of difficult. So how are games easier? Let’s take a look at some of the more common offenders.
Let’s start things off with tutorials. Everyone HATES mandatory tutorials. Here’s a personal anecdote. Way back in 2000, I first played Ogre Battle 64, which to this day remains one of my favorite games ever. Being an impetuous 15-year-old, I eschewed the 50-page instruction manual and dove right in. What followed was a terrible attempt to brute force the game, which failed mightily after enemies got so strong that one overpowered group couldn’t roll everyone. At that point, I actually read the instructions and learned how the game worked, and it felt like an accomplishment.
When someone complains about games “hand-holding,” it’s usually in reference to tutorials. There’s no actual learning going on and no real accomplishment when you’re completely told what to do at all times.

Now, there is something to be said for having clear objectives, but there is no point to having to be told what the jump button is. Whatever happened to pressing every button on the controller to see what it does? That’s how you learn. Optional tutorials? I have no problem with those. But the mandatory ones are awful. And yes, Final Fantasy XIII’s first ten hours were effectively a very long tutorial.
Next up we’ve got excessive checkpoints. This is the one which probably bugs me the most. Now, some old games are positively brutal with checkpoints, making you go really far back upon dying. There is little fun to be had if 90% of your playtime is spent on level 1 because you have to keep starting the game over.

However, a lot of modern games overcorrected to an incredible amount by giving checkpoints all the time. Do something stupid and die? No big deal. You’ll get set back about 10 seconds. Sometimes enemies even keep the damage you’ve done, so you can just rush them over and over until you win. Dying in a game should be a punishment, not a way to get a free health refill.
This problem is also pretty easily corrected. Take out some checkpoints. Boom. I’ll take the paycheck for my billion-dollar idea right now. Add some danger to the game. Force me to use strategy beyond going all Leeroy Jenkins on everything. Some games already do this, by the way. The Bioshock games have the option of disabling respawns, so you have to load from your last save every time. It makes things way more intense when you have to play every move. Or just save all the time.
Finally, we’ve got annoying helper characters. These are characters like Fi in Skyward Sword who pretty much tell you exactly what to do. An easy example of why this is so annoying comes from the recent mobile version of Final Fantasy VI. In this version of one of the best games ever, Mog the Moogle is always around to tell you where to go.

Never mind that, for most of the game, FF VI is extremely linear and that as long as you don’t mash through every text box in the game and never read anything, the game will give you a pretty good idea of what you should be doing to advance the story. No, you need Mog to say that you have to go to Figaro Castle. It’s completely unnecessary and operates under the assumption that you, the player, are really, really stupid, which crosses the line between helpful and insulting in an awful hurry.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t hard games out there, or that all old hard games are created equal. Dark Souls is a perfect example in the “modern hard” model where adapting to your surroundings, learning from your mistakes, and developing a strategy is preferable to flat-out old-school reflex tests like Contra. And there is no excuse for a game being hard entirely because the controls don’t work or because the enemies take a jillion hits to kill.

Difficulty is always going to be a double-edged sword in gaming. You want to have a game that isn’t so easy it can be beaten in an hour and then never played again, but you also want an accessible product. But throwing in the problems discussed above aren’t the way to make things more accessible. The insane popularity of Dark Souls and the fact that people still pop in things like Castlevania and Mega Man are testaments to the love of some level of difficulty in games. Luckily, there are still some genres that never forgot this like, oh, I don’t know, shoot-em-ups.