Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Simpsons, or, How A Bad Camera Can Almost Destroy An Entire Game

Full disclosure: I had the distinct pleasure of working with a LOT of the people who made this game. I don't think my opinion of it is particularly skewed by that fact, but I can't say for sure.

Overall, I liked it. I mean, I played it through to the end, which is quite rare for me these days. The writing's funny, the graphics are pretty darned good, and the game does a really good job of evoking Springfield - whatever it means to you.

It's really self-referential - the characters know they're in a game, and as a result, it's quite ... er... "gamey." There are a lot of essentially randomly placed collectibles, there's even a whole collection of "game cliches" that you can find, though the fact that the game knows they're cliches doesn't make them any less... overused.

Still, for almost every downside, there's an equal upside. The writing is really quite good - it's as funny as a reasonable episode of the Simpsons that just happens to be focused on games - keeps things clever enough to dress up the relatively generic platforming bits. For the terrible partner AI, there's the option to play with a second live player. The list goes on - for all the characters' special powers, their use in-game is often very hamfistedly scripted - use the Homer Ball here, use Lisa's Hand of Buddha here, etc. It's not a bad thing, it's just that the powers seem so single-use that it's almost like they're keys to locked doors, and not interesting things that the characters can use anywhere.

All in all, it's probably the best Simpsons game ever made. A solid B/80...

Oh, wait. I forgot the camera.

The camera is *horrible*. It is one of the worst implementations of a relatively straightforward camera I've ever seen. It's not that it tries something spectacularly different and fails at it - it's that it tries to be absolutely generic and still manages to be utterly horrid. The worst thing is that conceptually, at least, it's relatively easy to fix. It all has to do with what happens when the camera collides with an object.

In the Simpsons Game, the camera circles the player character at a fixed radius. If there's an object in the way, the camera stops on that object. After a few seconds of being obstructed, the camera then changes to (what feels to be) an arbitrary position. Where the camera moves appears to be completely unpredictable - sometimes it moves nearly 180 degrees, sometimes it moves maybe 10 degrees. If there is a pattern to it, as a player, it's impossible to discern. Sometimes it tries to recenter itself behind your character, other times it doesn't.

For a game where precision jumping is important, having a camera with a mind of its own is an unmitigated disaster. Every time the camera moves during a series of precise jumps, it's the game's fault I die, not mine. The biggest problem is that this is something that's been done to death in other games. This is a "solved problem" - when the camera collides with an object, you move the camera closer to the player until the object is out of the way. In the worst case scenario, the radius R goes to 0. When the camera becomes obstructed by the player, you fade out the player-character so that the player can continue to see the environment.

This prevents the camera from getting stuck on obstacles, generally prevents obstacles from getting in between the camera and the player, and ensures that the camera almost never has to move automatically. At the very least, in some of the sequences that required precision jumping, they could have locked down the camera to a fixed perspective, which would at least have made the jumping easier.

This problem is *so* bad that it almost ruined my enjoyment of the game. Honestly, had another friend of mine not been playing it recently, I probably would just have never bothered to play it again - which is a shame, because a lot of the best levels are closer to the end.

If you're a Simpsons fan, and you go into it knowing the camera's garbage, it's an enjoyable part of the series, and a fun time. If you get frustrated dealing with a finicky camera, this is NOT the game for you, even if ou are a Simpsons fan. If you're not a Simpsons fan, it's probably not really interesting enough to be worth getting anyway. While there are attempts at diversity, the basic platforming is really nothing to write home about.

Still, I played it as a Simpsons fan, and knowing the camera was garbage (I played the demo). It was funnier than many 10th Season-to-Present Simpsons episodes, and a good sendup of games and the game industry in general. I enjoyed it, despite its flaws.

B/55, mostly due to a bad camera and some really, really insipid collectibles.

For a Simpsons fan, who cares more about the "Simpsons" than the "Game" part: B/75 (the camera will still piss you off).

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cooperation is the New Black

Over the last few weeks, I've been in the middle of the spring gaming glut. I know, there is no spring gaming glut - except there is. Games that got overlooked during or delayed during the holidays are hitting shelves (or hitting shelves cheap), and I've got more on my plate than I have time. Two games that I've been playing a little of recently are Burnout: Paradise and Army of Two.

Now, the notion that co-op games are awesome is so old that it's hardly worth mentioning. But between Rock Band, Army of Two, and Burnout: Paradise, what's clear to me is that games that involve social cooperation/collaboration are absolutely here to stay - not as a fad, or a feature, but as an entire genre of gaming. It used to be single player or two-player, back in the day of games like Contra and Ikari Warriors. Then, for a good long while it became single player or competitive multiplayer, and the cooperative, social nature of games was shelved for a while. Now that it's back, I can't imagine letting it fall by the wayside again.

There's something deeply satisfying about saving a fallen bandmember in Rock Band, or hitting that last note and getting the bonus. There's a lot of communication involved in synchronizing barrel rolls in Burnout, or trading aggro in Army of Two. Yes, you get it in team-based competition, but the shift towards one-on-one cooperation creates a much more personal dynamic that's been missing in games for a while.

Any other co-op experiences like this I've been missing?

Army of Two: B/80 (not very far in, very limited multiplayer experience)
Burnout: Paradise: B/95
Rock Band: A/100

Thursday, March 13, 2008


So, Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out this weekend for the Wii. It's a fun game - sort of a charming, fluffy timewaster. There are a lot of people who think the SSB series is manna from heaven, but I don't really "get" what it is they get out of the game.

While it's fun, it's a mess - it's basically a spastic buttonmasher - I don't doubt you *could* get good at the game, but I also don't doubt that people who have invested hundreds of hours in it still get beaten on a regular basis by total n00bs.

That said, it's fun. I'd like to get some chaotic, four-player action going. There are enough wacky control options that I can actually provide four suitable controllers, which is awesome. The problem, of course, is time and space. I can regularly play with four people - they're just not all in the same place at the same time. So the fact that SSBB comes with online play was a huge factor in why I picked it up. But here's the kicker(s):

1.) Setting up a friends list is nigh-impossible: You have to give them your SSBB "code" - a 12-digit code that is utterly without identity. You can then give the person a five-character nickname. Fine for me, but not for people with names longer than five characters. On top of that, THEY have to input YOUR code as well. There's (as far as I can tell) absolutely NO WAY to transfer a friend code online. That is pure insanity. It means that tonight, even though we'd agreed to play together, I had to text-message my coworkers my code, and vice versa. How stupid is that? Really, really, really stupid. It's cumbersome, user-hostile, and a giant pain in the butt. There's no way this should be acceptable in a post-Xbox Live world.

2.) No voice chat: There's no way this should be acceptable either, in a post-Xbox Live world. No voice chat at all. There's no support for a microphone peripheral, nothing. There's barely even text chat. You can input four phrases, and map those to your "taunts." That's it. When you're playing with friends, there's effectively no trash talking. When you're playing with randoms, there's enough that they can be incredibly annoying, but otherwise basically remain faceless, nameless might-as-well-be-AI characters. It's ridiculous.

Here's the thing that bugs me - SSBB has been getting rave reviews all over the internet. 9+ scores all over the place. But they agree that the Subspace Emissary mode (the bulk of the single player experience) is an incoherent mishmash of stuff that doesn't work very well with the controls, and that the 1995-era online implementation is abhorrent.

And yet, 9+ scores, all over the place.

I'm sorry - SSBB has a lot going for it. The core mechanics are fun, and it's fun when you have people over (I assume). But the lack of what are now *critical* features is a knock against it, and the fact that the core single-player experience is a total crapfest should also be a knock against it. I get that it's a party game. But as a multiplayer experience, it's missing the MULTIPLAYER EXPERIENCE for anyone who has a full-time job and whose friends are the least bit geographically distributed.

I enjoy the mechanics, but there's no way this can possibly rate higher than a 7.

For me, it's a D/85 - the core gameplay is technically accomplished, but it loses points for having a really badly designed single-player experience, and the lack of innovation is for an absolutely garbage online implementation - something that can barely even be considered to meeting the minimum standard.

Poor showing, Nintendo - while I expected as much, given past online forays, it's unacceptable that something as good as Live could have been around for more than FIVE YEARS and the implementation of online play in SSBB is so bad.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ninja Warrior

So, this isn't a videogame, but it is a game. Twice a year, the Tokyo Broadcasting System runs an obstacle course called "Sasuke." 100 people compete to finish a four-stage obstacle course that tests the competitors' strength and speed.

There are a lot of reasons that Ninja Warrior is so appealing - obviously, watching people do extraordinary things is often interesting. And if that's all there was, Ninja Warrior would still be quality TV. Still, there's more to it than that. There's almost no prize money given out. The prize for winning the contest - finishing the fourth stage, is only $17,000 dollars (or thereabouts, in yen), and over ten years of the competition, only two people have ever completed it.

So, the competitors aren't just in it for the money. They're in it because of the challenge. But there's more to it than that. Here's the thing that I think makes it really appealing: Everyone can win.

Now, let's be clear - that's not "Everyone deserves to win." That, I think, would be the sentiment in the States - that everyone deserves to win. They'd make the obstacle course reasonable. A course that no one completes in eight years of attempts would be intolerable to US TV audiences. But everyone *can* win. One person winning doesn't exclude anyone else from *also* winning. The competition is solely with yourself, and the clock. The only competition with others is to see who can do it first.

To that degree, I'm sure the competition is quite fierce. In the US, you'd have the top ten all trash talking each other, spouting how they're the best, and no one else can match their skills, blah blah blah. Here, the top competitors share a common interest, and have a camaraderie that is really refreshing to watch. They share each other's joy and agony, as they all work toward a common goal. They aren't keeping their competition down, they're cheering them on.

There's something in this, I think, that can be learned by game designers. It feels like there's a link to the concept of "biasing toward success," that I talked about in an earlier post - that Nintendo, by allowing even new players to succeed, has made the Wii appealing to a broad audience. I'm not sure what the link *is,* exactly, but it feels like there's something there. That developers can make multiplayer experiences that are social, buoyant, collaborative, and still be challenging and fun without fostering hostile competition.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


Sega Bass Fishing came out sometime in the last couple weeks. I had no idea it was coming out, but I saw it on store shelves and bought it on the spot. It's basically an arcade fishing game, and if that doesn't sound fun, don't worry - I didn't think it was, either.

But in 1999, I saw it at E3 on the Dreamcast, and on the drive up from LA, instead of going straight home, I swung by an import shop (Network Video, in Milpetas) and picked it up with the fishing controller, naturally, for my imported Dreamcast. I played the crap out of that game. My friend would come over, and we'd take turns sitting in the "boat" - the loveseat that sat sideways in front of the TV.

"Small one!" the announcer would shout, in Engrish. Years later, my friend (who is at best a casual gamer), still remembers the "Enjoy your fishing!" shout-out at the beginning of the game.

So, when I picked up the game on the Wii, it was pretty obvious we'd have to get together and get some fishing on. We ended up playing for hours while my wife and his girlfriend watched, sometimes participated, laughed and laughed.

Is Sega Bass Fishing a great game? Yeah - it's great. Maybe not in the same way that something like Ico is great, but it's sort of like Rock Band - it's accessible for the non-gamer, it's charming, and a really good time. More, it's part of some really great memories - having fun with friends.

The other experience I've had that is sort of like this was playing Virtua Striker on the Dreamcast while in Japan. I was at my aunt & uncle's house with my parents. My Japanese isn't particularly good, and even when it's alright, it takes about two weeks before I get comfortable really speaking. So, my young cousin and I were hanging out in awkward silence, without really being able to talk to one another.

After a while, he got bored, and threw in Virtua Striker. Now, if you've never played it, it should be made clear that Virtua Striker is a terrible, terrible game. It's not only bad as a soccer game, but it's bad as *any* game. The controls are so unresponsive that it's often difficult to tell whether you have anything at all to do with what's happening on screen.

But I picked up the controller and played with him. At first it was strange, and awkward, but within a few minutes, we were both sucked in to the game and the friendly competition. It gave us something to talk about that was simple, clear, and accessible. We got to talking about other things - slowly and in a combination of terrible Japanese and terrible English - but we had a common experience that we could share, and it opened up a lot of other communication that we didn't really have any other avenue to explore.

Eight years later, I have really fond memories not only of that time, but of that game. Whenever I think of unresponsive controls, I have a sort of warm, happy feeling that reminds me of my cousin.

Wacky stuff.

Sega Bass Fishing: A/90
Virtua Striker: D/20