Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Fourth Nomination: Red Dead Redemption

My fourth nomination for Game of the Year 2010 goes to Red Dead Redemption, the insanely good game from Rockstar that once again demonstrates their gift for strong dialogue, characters, amazing visuals, and very fun gameplay. If you've played a GTA game you'll definitely notice similarities in the gameplay department, but this still feels like a completely different experience, with more than enough relating to its excellent setting to set it apart.

I rarely find myself doing sidequests in video games but in Red Dead Redemption you're constantly given the opportunity to do missions for people you run into on the road, and I always find myself excited to do these, usually just as excited as I am to get to the next intense main story mission. The main character's very likable and with top-notch production values and dialogue that sounds so convincing that these characters might as well be real people talking to you, not to mention the amazing voice acting, the story's awesome. The gameplay's intense, the visuals are amazing, and there's so much to do. One of those games that's very easy to lose yourself in.

Red Dead Redemption's definitely one of this year's highlights and is totally deserving of all the praise and great sales it has gotten so far.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Third Nomination: Final Fantasy XIII

Well, after yet another unbearably long wait, Final Fantasy XIII was released this March, and just like Final Fantasy XII before it, it would seriously divide the fanbase. The developers' decision to base Final Fantasy XIII's game design on that of an action game meant that things like interaction with characters outside your main party and exploration were scaled back to a very bare minimum. Even though it was flawed, however, Final Fantasy XIII pulled me into its story and characters and took me along for the ride like only Final Fantasy seems to know how to do. One of the best battle systems I've ever experienced and very frequent and captivating cutscenes ensured that Final Fantasy XIII was always a blast to play, and its action-driven approach, though not without its issues, meant there was literally not a second of downtime in the game's first 9 chapters. Amazing visuals and a great score that merges orchestration and electronica made me excited to see every new environment that the characters would end up in.

Final Fantasy XIII's relentless pacing, likable characters, awesome battle system, and top-notch visuals and audio, and incredibly-directed cutscenes make this latest installment in the long-running series worthy of a nomination, even if it's not necessarily the best in the series. It still manages to be the best Japanese RPG I've played this gen.

Note: As with all the games that I've nominated, you can read my review of Final Fantasy XIII in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.  

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 Second Nomination: Enslaved Odyssey to the West

The second nomination for my GOTY 2010 goes to Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, another game that didn't get the attention it deserved. This cinematic and jaw-droppingly gorgeous action/platformer, which takes place in a colorful post-apocalyptic world, combines some great character customization with a rock-solid combat system and music and sound design that's completely absorbing.

But what makes Enslaved truly stand out is its storyline, which, though maybe a bit predictable, features great chemistry between the two lead characters, Monkey and Trip, as well as the addition of the hilarious tagalong Pigsy in the game's final 1/3. Their banter throughout the game always feels convincing and natural, but then again, with a script co-written by 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland and the main character voiced by Andy Serkis, I guess that shouldn't have been too much of a surprise. The characters are so likable and the story is so well-presented that I found myself hooked into it in the same way that I was pulled into the Enslaved's gorgeous world. The visuals are not only great on a technical level, but artistically they shine as well, with some imaginative enemy designs and a fantastic lighting system that reminds me of the awesome-looking Dinosaur Planet from Star Fox Adventures back on the Gamecube. It's just such a colorful look, and I can't tell you how refreshing I found this in our era of so many brown and gray-looking games.

I just can't express how fun an experience Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is, from its start all the way to its mindblowing ending. It's an ending that's almost hauntingly beautiful, making fantastic use of live action footage in a very Wall-E like way, and it stuck with me long after the credits rolled. It's too bad that this game didn't sell all that well, but hopefully more people discover it down the road. It may not necessarily re-invent the genre, but what it does, it does so incredibly well.

Note: As with all the games that I've nominated, you can read my review of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Game of the Year 2010 First Nomination: Sin and Punishment Star Successor

The Wii has had so many rail shooters over the course of its lifespan, but none of them has managed to be quite as awesome as the criminally overlooked Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. From the moment I booted this up, I felt as if I'd entered a time machine and I was back in my local arcade (before it closed down) jamming quarters into one of the machines. Sin and Punishment: Star Successor is probably one of the most action-packed titles I've ever played, let-alone this year. In what other game do you have hundreds and hundreds of enemies flying around on screen at any given moment? And let's not forget the epic boss battles every 5 minutes.

As far as the arcade vibe goes, Star Successor is loaded with all you'd want. Squealing guitars on the soundtrack at the Game Over screen? Check. Wonderfully cheesy voice acting? Check. Online leaderboards to rank your score against other people's scores? Check. Old school challenge? Aaaand check. Thia game's challenging but rarely unfair, and the (skippable) cutscenes are surprisingly frequent, demonstrating two pretty likable main characters. The level variety's also impressive, and each level and action scene feels different from the last.

Really a gem. I wish more people had gotten to experience the old school fun that is Sin and Punishment: Star Successor, definitely one of the craziest and most "hardcore" games of 2010 and one that deserves its place on this list.

Note: As with all the games that will be nominated, you can read my review of Sin and Punishment: Star Successor in the Archive, though keep in mind, my GOTY is not based on which game this year has gotten the best score. It's based on which game has, looking back, left the biggest impression on me and delivered the most memorable experience.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Announcement: Game of the Year Awards (Yeah, seriously.)

Alright, even though it's just one person's (my) opinion, and even though it's probably only going to be read by like, 10 people, I thought it would be kinda cool to do a Game of the Year awards-type thing here on my blog, mainly because I've always wanted to do one of these.

So here's how it's going to work. Of course since this is just me doing this, the only games nominated will be games that I've played, so even though many sites will be giving GOTY noms and awards to games like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and CoD: Black Ops, they won't be nominated here because I haven't played them. These will just be the best games that I've played that were released this year, and which one I feel, overall, was the top gaming experience I've had in 2010.
So I have right now 5 nominations set in stone. That has the potential to grow to 6 or 7, because there are two other games from 2010 that I plan on playing. And I have a feeling (though of course I could be totally wrong,) that at least one of them will be up for a nomination. I'm going to give myself the opportunity to play these games, but what I'll begin doing is releasing my nominations one at a time, starting probably late this week. And in early to mid, January I'll reveal the winner, and then maybe I'll even do one of those "honorable mentions" things where I talk about games that were very good but didn't totally make the cut, or even my biggest disappointments of the year. But we'll see how this goes first. If it's a total bust I'll probably just leave it at GOTY.

So that's pretty much what this blog will be about for the next couple weeks unless I find something else to post about as well.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Review: Donkey Kong Country Returns. Decent game, but never really feels like anything special

Alright, this marks me trying a new format with my reivews, going the IGN route by ending with closing comments then a categorical breakdown of everything. This was always something I was afraid of doing because it makes it easier for people to avoid the review entirely and just skip to the end, but then again, being able to sum up the review at the end means I can throw in little details that would have bogged down the review otherwise, and my reviews do tend to run a bit long, so I guess I'll see whether this way works better or not.

So here goes.

In 2002, Texas-based Retro Studios amazed the video game industry by creating Metroid Prime, a game that many today celebrate as being among the best of the decade. Though people were initially skeptical, the game managed to feel like a Metroid game despite taking bold risks with the franchise and dramatically shaking things up.

So my expectations were high when it was announced that Retro Studios would now be taking over the reins of the Donkey Kong franchise. Though it was pretty obvious from the start that Donkey Kong Country Returns was not going to attempt to re-invent the franchise in the same way that Metroid Prime did, I have to say that I think I expected a bit too much from Retro Studios' latest effort. The game plays fine and looks nice, but generally it doesn't do all that much to stand out. Donkey Kong fans will probably enjoy getting the chance to play more of the same Donkey Kong they remember, but those new to the series, like myself, may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Visually the game looks nice, with some great effects present as Donkey Kong progresses through the colorful environments. It all looks polished and pretty, even when the camera gets to go in close. The characters and enemies look great on a technical level and animate well, I just wish artistically the game was a bit more interesting. I realize this all takes place on an island, but I still think it was possible to spice up the art direction a little bit more. Aside from a couple cool-looking sunset levels that seem to have been inspired by Frank Miller, not much was done to make the various jungles, beaches, and volcanoes you'll traverse feel like anything we haven't seen before. There are examples of inspired character design, but this was something Rareware really excelled at, and Retro Studios I think is a bit out of their element here. Interaction with other characters is minimal, with an old shopkeeper providing the game with its only dialogue, and his one-liners aren't much to write home about. Meanwhile, the screen where you select your levels from is so bland that it makes New Super Mario Bros' hub world look good, and aside from the shop, there's nothing you can do between levels but head to the next one. Though there are plenty of things to find and collect in the levels themselves (such as letters that form the word “KONG,” which will unlock a hidden world) you must find each letter in every single level to reap the bonus content that it unlocks, which is an awfully tall order that many will probably feel isn't worth the effort. This is a relatively bare-bones platformer and aside from the collectibles and a time attack mode, there are no distractions at all from the main quest.

Which is unfortunate, because the main quest, though it can be both fun and rewarding in short bursts, can also be very draining, given the high difficulty and intensity of some of the levels. Often I found myself opting to simply turn the game off instead of going from one very difficult level to another one. Each of the 8 worlds you visit contain several levels, which generally look similar to each other, and though there are occasionally brutally difficult mine cart and rocket blast segments to shake things up, for the most part this simply is what it is. Donkey Kong must chase after his stolen bananas, he can use Diddy Kong as a sidekick to gain extra health and hovering abilities, and he can deal with enemies by bopping them on the head, rolling into them, ground pounding, or sometimes blowing on them if they happen to be fire-based. Aside from jumping, Donkey Kong's actions are all mapped to shaking the Wii Remote and holding the D-pad in a certain direction. A big problem I have with Donkey Kong Country Returns is that I just can't stand shake controls. They bothered me in WarioLand: Shake It and they're not any better here. Though you can opt to play with the Nunchuck attachment, there's no way to map the shake controls to any buttons. I eventually got used to it, but it made the first half of the game or so a pain for me to play.

One thing I want to commend Retro Studios for, on the other hand, is not going easy with the game's difficulty. This is a challenging game, “retro” in every sense of the word, and it has no problem making you sweat. At the shop in between levels you can buy as many additional lives as you can afford, and even a key to unlock a different path through the world map if the level you're stuck on is just too hard. You can also buy an extra heart for use on one level, or another power that will make Donkey Kong invincible for a short time. There's also the Nintendo-enforced “Super Guide” feature that will be offered to you if the game sees you dying a lot, and taking advantage of it will have the game play through the level for you, though you will receive no collectibles from using Super Guide. Make no mistake about it, this is not an easy game and you'll be trying to collect every banana you see to gain as many lives as possible, as you *will* die constantly. Even hardcore gamers may find themselves tempted to use the Super Guide at certain points. How fair is the difficulty? Sometimes fair and satisfying, other times it relies too much on trial-and-error and memorization, and checkpoints can sometimes be very far apart. Some will tolerate this type of difficulty more than others. I understand that they were going for a retro gaming experience, and this form of difficulty definitely reminds me of the Sega Genesis games I grew up with. Games have changed a lot since those days, though, and so for me it was often frustrating, rather than satisfying, to have to essentially die on certain set pieces in Returns over and over again before I memorized exactly how they worked in order to get them right.


Verdict: There are some moments of inspired platforming, and the pacing is actually very fast, making it easy to always turn the game back on, even if minutes later I found myself cursing at the TV. Donkey Kong Country Returns is a strange game, one that's fun one second and then frustrating the next. I guess my biggest problem with it is that it doesn't really have much of a personality. It feels workmanlike, as if Retro Studios was told to make a 2D platformer in the spirit of the Rareware Donkey Kong Country games and they didn't have the freedom (or maybe were afraid) to branch out and really make this their own. Even the music seems to be mostly remixes and comes off as forgettable. The graphics are nice but the art direction and dialogue feels like a secondhand Rareware, and as I played this game, as much as I tried, I found it hard to get past the fact that this fairly standard 2D sidescroller is really what Retro Studios has been working on for these past few years. It feels like a waste of this brilliant developer's talent. The Donkey Kong Country games tried to push 2D platforming forward, while Returns is content to just be a throwback. Granted, the gameplay is solid and can at times be a lot of fun, I guess I just expected more for my $50 than what's basically an updated version of a game that came out in 1994. I think what it comes down to is that Donkey Kong Country Returns was made for fans of Donkey Kong Country. If you're new to the series, you'll find a fairly standard and very difficult 2D platformer that doesn't quite have the creativity or ambition to stand out in what's becoming a very crowded market. Fans should buy, everyone else should rent first to see if they like it before dropping the $50.

Presentation: Game follows your typical Nintendo game "8 world structure" on a pretty boring worldmap that's light on things to do or characters to interact with. Not a whole lot of surprises here. Story is minimal and what you'd expect.

Graphics: Colorful environments, superb lighting, and nice graphical effects are pleasing on the eyes. Fluid animation and some cool-looking enemies have trouble masking a general lack of inspiration. Level types (jungle, beach, cave, fire) can feel a little stale.

Gameplay: An often very challenging sidescroller that's exactly what it says it is, Donkey Kong Country Returns. Series fans will be more forgiving than others of the old school try-and-die difficulty mechanics. Gameplay isn't nearly as revolutionary now as it may have been back in 1994, and a late-game switch hunt feels like filler. Aside from this, Returns keeps up a fast pace and there are moments of very inspired platforming.

Sound: Sound effects are solid. I recognized some music tracks which I assume are remixed from older games, but all in all the music doesn't do a whole lot to stand out.

Value: The challenging difficulty and 8 worlds ensure a lengthy gameplay experience. There are several puzzle pieces and KONG letters to collect in each level, not to mention Time Attack options on levels you've beaten. If you're looking for things to do outside of the main quest, though, you're pretty much out of luck.

Overall: 6.5/10 (My reviews go by a .5 scale.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blog Post: Spike TV amazes with another cringe-inducing Video Game Awards show

Well, tonight was the night, the annual Spike TV Video Game Awards. Ah, the video game awards, the biggest non-event of the year where Spike TV gets to humiliate itself in front of millions of....actually, does this show really attract millions of viewers? I'd honestly be amazed.

It's tough to figure out exactly who this terribly weak awards show is meant to entertain. The "big game reveals" are almost all leaked beforehand, they’re announced with short FMV trailers that show no gameplay to speak of, the jokes are so awful that one of the presenters even blamed the teleprompter, and those who present the awards seem to have nothing to do with video games as they stand up there awkwardly with their feeble jokes in front of the merciless crowd….wow.

Seriously, who dresses up and heads out to the annual Video Game Awards? I just can’t even imagine who exactly is sitting in this crowd, but it had to be the most lifeless audience I think I’ve ever seen at any televised event. My Chemical Romance, who for some reason performed (their song appears in the Gran Turismo 5 commercial, so I guess that has something to do with it) might as well have been doing a show in an empty hall. There wasn’t a single cut to the audience during their entire performance, the show’s directors clearly not even bothering to fake the crowd’s excitement.
But let’s head back to the games for a minute. It amazes me that the video game industry continues to legitimize this 3rd rate award show by giving it these “BIG EXCLUSIVE REVEALS!” I assume these are meant to get gamers to watch the show (despite the fact that I’m sure the trailers will be up online in no time) but the trailers themselves are so brief, contain almost no gameplay, and come and go with no sort of context or explanation. One of the more bizarre moments of the show for me was the announcement of a new SSX game. Remember SSX? It was a pretty awesome snowboarding series of the PS2/Gamecube/Xbox era, where you’d play as characters with giant orange afros who do The Worm on their snowboards.

Well apparently it’s getting a “deadly” sequel about racing down “dark, dangerous” terrain with realistic-looking characters and not a joke in sight. Really? It's pretty much the equivalent of giving Spongebob Squarepants an uzi for his next movie and turning it into a serious R-rated drama about him rescuing Patrick from underwater, bomb-wielding terrorists and killing everyone in his path.
This SSX trailer is absolutely begging for some context, but instead, we get a quick look at what appears to be a  “dark, serious snowboarding game” called SSX and then that's it. We don't get to understand how exactly this is an SSX game or even what systems it’s on, making its reveal almost entirely useless. At E3, for example, when a game's revealed, usually a developer takes to the stage after the trailer to explain what we've just seen, but not here. Here they're apparently too eager to get to the next unfunny skit.
The one game reveal that seemed to have been given a somewhat decent trailer (as in, we actually got to see some gameplay) was Uncharted 3, but everything else, if you happened to be watching for the new video game reveals, was terribly lacking. And if anyone not into video games is watching this....I can't even imagine how any of this could be interesting to them. The show simply fails to communicate what's so amazing about many of the fantastic video games being showcased, and why video games are played and loved by so many people all throughout the world. Though of course they have time for a skit where a celebrity explains which male video game character she'd have sex with. Classy.
Neil Patrick Harris, despite belting out jokes as bad as everyone else’s, actually manages to escape with some dignity, mainly because he comes across as someone who actually did some preparation for this. His sarcastic tone and a constant look of amusement on his face that just screams “doing it for the paycheck, BABY!” actually elevates the show slightly, if only because it lets the viewer know that at least someone up on the stage knows how ridiculously stupid this all is.  During one of the (many) cringe-inducing skits throughout the show’s two hours, the sound effects on the gun he was using came too late, giving him the opportunity to improvise a one-liner.  During another skit where he proceeds to place a live chicken into a slingshot (I wish I were kidding) before the show’s director “lets him know that PETA disapproves and he has to stop the stunt,” he says in a voice fully loaded with sarcasm that the Oscars would have let him do it. He ends the show very appropriately by commenting that this is probably “the end of his hosting career.”
Though to be honest, the only one who has to worry about that is Dane Cook, who makes several jaw-droppingly unfunny appearances to introduce the nominees for “Year’s Best Character,” and while I know Dane Cook isn’t exactly George Carlin, this was bad even by his standards. Nick Swardson makes an equally unfunny appearance to promote his new TV show, a decision I’m sure he’s now totally regretting.
It’s sad because there are some really solid things about this show. The clips used as the nominees are introduced are well-cut, and the awards in general don’t seem to be *too* rigged. Except, of course, for Neil Patrick Harris winning Best Male Voice Actor (he remarks sarcastically, "well, that was a surprise,") against John Cleese, Daniel Craig, Gary Oldman, and Martin Sheen...yeah, okay. There was a great NBA Live 2011 joke, and a pretty fantastic live performance by José González of his song from Red Dead Redemption, a performance which thankfully wasn’t butchered by the echoing caused by a bad mic job.

Otherwise, it’s frustrating that an industry that’s reaching for universal acceptance and is begging to be taken more seriously among the general public is stuck with this awards show that makes video gaming look so tacky. This collection of disinterested presenters, groan-inducing skits, and what feels like a majority of the awards being given off screen, seems to do nothing but set the image of the games industry back. It’s seen improvements over the years, but at this point it feels like it’s content to be “that 3rd rate awards show” that seems like nothing more than an excuse for the game publishers (and Burger King) to advertise themselves. But ugh….why does it have to be so embarrassing?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: Kirby's Epic Yarn. It's for little kids but this game's fun and looks amazing.

Well, this was a nice surprise. When Nintendo announced Kirby's Epic Yarn, it looked to me like nothing more than yet another 2D side-scroller with an art style gimmick, but words can't really express how fun the latest Kirby adventure is to play. It may not have much in the way of a challenge, and its kiddy atmosphere may drive cynical older gamers away, but some awe-inspiring visuals, always fun gameplay, and solid music make for an incredibly unique adventure.

Graphics: One thing that makes Epic Yarn stand out from the rest of the pack is the visual presentation. Kirby finds himself inside a yarn world, where everything, including himself and all the characters he meets, is stitched together like patchwork. This graphics style never ceases to amaze. A vibrant color scheme coupled with the inventive way a world "made out of yarn" was created ends up disguising the Wii's limitations. These visuals are so clean (especially in 480p) that it's almost easy to forget you're even playing a Wii game. The bosses are inventive, Kirby has an arsenal of clever transformations at his disposal, the levels are varied, and even the way the characters move and animate is smooth. Almost nothing to complain about here graphics wise, the developers have created a Wii game that doesn't look like a Wii game.

Gameplay: Kirby's Epic Yarn takes the form of a 2D side-scroller. Since he's now in yarn form, Kirby has lost his ability to fly, though he can hover gradually to the ground, and he's no longer able to suck up enemies. Much of his attacking is done by unraveling the enemies, or by picking them up and throwing them at other enemies or at breakable walls. Kirby also has the ability to go through holes in the fabric and end up behind it, opening up paths that lead to hidden jewels or treasure. Kirby can also change into different forms for certain parts of levels. He can transform into a fire engine, he can turn into a tank that fires yarn missiles, or into a car or a sled....and those are just a couple of them. All of his transformations are fun to control, using the Wii Remote's tilt controls well without it being too much of a distraction. The only transformation that feels slightly unintuitive is one in which Kirby becomes a train, and you have to draw the tracks on the screen. Though I got the hang of it eventually, it's the one transformation that I don't think feels as....seamless (...sorry about that) as the others.

These transformations though really shake things up and add some great moments and even at times a Sonic-like sense of speed to these levels. But even when not transforming into anything, Epic Yarn does its basic platforming very well. This is a fun game, plain and simple. It even features a large list of activities to participate in when outside of the levels. Kirby has an apartment in Quilty Square that can be decorated with treasures you've found throughout the levels, or purchased from the nearby store. Early on, Kirby's landlord asks him if he can help with decorating the neighboring apartment, and doing this gets Kirby a new neighbor. Eventually you're given the opportunity to expand the apartment building even more, adding more and more rooms to allow others to move in. These people all have optional tasks and mini-games that you can complete, and these help add more time to a game that's already at a pretty decent length. (8 hours for me with a little bit of optional content.) Other optional content exists in the form of hidden levels in each of the game's worlds. These are unlocked by getting a "gold" medal on the world's boss, which encourages you to try your best not to get hurt when fighting a boss encounter.

Which brings me to the game's often-discussed lack of challenge. Epic Yarn is not a game that will challenge you in the traditional sense. Bosses are fun to fight but they always feel like they're holding back, and there's no way to die in the game. Instead, Kirby collects jewels throughout the level. Taking damage or falling down a pit will cause some these to spill out, and you lose them if you don't re-collect them in time. Sometimes you won't be able to re-collect them, as they'll fall down a bottomless pit or end up outside of your reach. In this case, you don't get them back, and you'll have to hope there are more jewels in the rest of the level or your grade at the end will suffer. As you play through the levels, a meter at the top of the screen lets you know your current (gold, silver, and bronze) and getting gold medals isn't always easy. It's in this way that Epic Yarn allows for "challenge." It's still not particularly difficult, but it'll provide a challenge if you're trying to get as many gold medals as possible. Though I initially thought the game was too easy, I quickly grew to like this take on the platformer genre. There's no frustration whatsoever to be had, and the fun platforming and sense of amazement at the game's visuals and invention is never ruined by any tediousness. It's a fun and relaxing interesting way to play a game, that's for sure.

That's not to say that some challenge wouldn't have been welcome...especially on some of these bosses. The final boss in particular didn't seem to put up any sort of fight, and I got a gold on it my first try. But the ease in difficulty didn't bother me nearly as much as I thought it would, I guess I was having too much fun to care.

Audio and Storyline: The music can sometimes feel a little too childish, but at other points it really helps to enhance what's already a great atmosphere. The winter levels in particular are almost enchanting, and the music (as well as the visuals) play a big role in that. There is voice acting in this game, but it's only done by 1 guy, who narrates several of the game's cutscenes. He delivers his lines like he's reading a storybook to the kids. It's as babyish as it sounds, and with a name like "epic yarn" and with such a great world at their disposal, it kind of sucks that a great story didn't seem to have been very high up on the developer's priority list. This is especially disappointing since the script is generally very well-translated, with the usual winks to the audience and clever dialogue that Nintendo's translated games are often known for.

Verdict: Don't play Kirby's Epic Yarn if you want a challenge, or if you want this to be like the other Kirby games. It's not. This is a game designed to be a purely fun experience. It's one of the best-looking side-scrollers I've ever seen, the atmosphere is at times incredible, there's inventive visual tricks at almost every turn (even opening your next level is always preceded by an awesome and creative visual) and each set of levels feels distinct from the other.

I should stress that this is my first Kirby game, and I've been told that it's very different from the rest. I can't say for sure what Kirby fans may think of some of Epic Yarn's big changes, but I think if anyone's open to something that might feel a bit childish at times, and that's more about fun than challenge, then they'll have a lot of fun with this very creative game.

8.5/10 (My reviews go by a .5 scale)

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Blog Post: The death of dying?

The idea of “dying” has been a major aspect of video games pretty much since they began. Anyone who has lived through the first couple console generations likely has memories of getting so incredibly close to the end of the game, only to lose your last life, discover that you had no continues left, and then face the crushing realization that you now had to start all over again. 
Of course, since you couldn’t save your progress in many cases, you were almost always forced to complete your games in one sitting. Seeing the dreaded “Game Over” screen was the ultimate punishment for messing up, and in this way, video games back then demanded a certain amount of skill and patience. Being able to complete a game was a legit test of skill, and I salute anyone who beat that 1993 Aero the Acrobat those are some interesting childhood memories.

(^ fu****g game, lol.)
Times are undoubtedly changing. It began with the save feature, which made losing all your lives much less of a punishment. With a save feature, losing all your lives and continues simply sent you back to the game’s main menu to load your last save and try again. You still may have lost some progress, depending on when your last save point was, but certainly, you didn’t have to start the entire game all over again to reach the same point. As the years went on, we’ve seen this concept taken further and further. Some games now give you check points in addition to save points, and dying sets you back to the nearest check point regardless of your last save. Some games let you save whenever you want, some games even save for you automatically every few minutes. The recent Final Fantasy XIII, for the first time in the long-running series’ history, removed the concept of losing progress entirely. In addition to save points literally every 5-10 minutes, dying in Final Fantasy XIII simply starts you right back in front of the enemy that killed you, with no penalty to speak of except having to try the fight again.
What’s becoming apparent is a shift in the video game industry that seems to be removing the idea of “dying” entirely. There are now games, such as 2008’s Prince of Persia, (yup, that's where I got the idea for this) that  don’t let you die at all: falling off a ledge simply results in a spirit guardian pulling you back up and letting you attempt the jump again. I think this shift is happening for a couple reasons. The big one is money.
Video games are becoming more expensive to make, and as a result, the industry has become more mainstream: it had to. As many people as possible need to buy big-budget games for them to make any profit, so publishers and developers seem to have realized that inaccessibility can turn away potential buyers. This has been going on for a long time and it’s not even debatable: video games in the past 10 years or so have become significantly easier than they ever were before. Many would argue that it goes back even further than that.
                Some people have undoubtedly resisted this change, (probably those with fond memories of the days when games were hard as hell) and some people have embraced it, and to be honest, I’m not sure where I stand on the issue. On one hand, as someone who played video games back during the Sega Genesis era as a little kid, there are some games today that I feel have become too easy, and the games that don’t let you die at all bother me a little bit for that reason. The old-school gamer in me just can’t wrap my head around the idea that there’s no punishment at all for, basically, playing badly.

On the other hand, I think that the very creation of saving your game at all made “losing all your lives” totally irrelevant anyway, and common sense would tell us that it was only a matter of time before the idea of a game giving your character “lives” at all was, in turn, removed. And in Prince of Persia 2008, if you lose a QTE on a boss, the boss simply gets a huge chunk of their health back..and isn't that sort of the same concept as dying anyway? So that begs the question of what exactly people (myself included) are complaining about.

The lack of dying can even be a good thing in some cases: since you were never in danger of losing your progress in Final Fantasy XIII, the developer had the freedom to make the battles actually pretty tough without worrying too much about people quitting the game in frustration. In that sense, I think this change can be a good thing. Accessibility is a good thing. It is a tightrope, though. Developers need to be careful not to make their games too easy, otherwise they may become almost mindless, and even boring.

Overall though, it was a change that was probably inevitable and who knows? Maybe games will be able to do what Final Fantasy XIII did and focus its challenge on the gameplay itself instead of focusing its challenge on the frustration of losing all your progress. If this happens, games may very well be better for it…….and these are probably the games I'll like best going forward.

It's funny though, because even after saying that, I've just finished playing Kirby's Epic Yarn, (review coming at some point,) a game I didn't expect to like at all because of its ease in difficulty, but I ended up enjoying it A LOT more than I'm currently enjoying Donkey Kong Country: Returns, which seems to be all about dying and its "lives" system. Go figure.