Sunday, June 22, 2014

Diary Entry #35: Chillin' With iD, the Ghost in My Machine

             For some reason, many people are obsessed with the idea of human interaction with artificial intelligence. As if talking to people alone wasn't enough, we also have to talk to computers with their very own personalities. What would they say? What would they even have to talk about, being stuck in a little computer and all. The entire notion is just quixotic garbage concocted by techno-centric airheads.

             Mel Croucher and his upstart development team, Nu Wave, might have been such airheads, but at least they know how to frame the entire "talk to the AI" thing within an interesting narrative. Instead of making it some uninteresting figure who responds to keywords like Eliza or whatever chatbot, the AI is an ancient entity that happens to be inhabiting your little Spectrum. 

             Considering how old this being is, he has very little to say from the get go. The TRUST meter on the bottom is the first thing I notice. My expert deductive skills tell me that I need this percentage to grow, grow, grow.

             iD starts in a gloomy mood. I'm not entirely sure how important mood is in the game aside from changing the borders color. Regardless of how he feels, iD asks a lot of probing questions. Your name, your favorite color, your favorite or least favorite people, all of them must be revealed to iD so he can trust you more.

             Occasionally, iD will parrot back some of these facts. iD recognizes that Crystal is the closest being I know, while also criticizing my choice for favorite color. 

             After iD states that he feels rotten, I decide to try and cheer him up. 29% trust level is a good enough point to say that you love someone, so I go ahead and drop the love bomb. 

             iD's response totally took me aback. After mostly nonsensical dialogue about iD's emotions and thoughts, I get asked a direct question about a very difficult emotion. People have been thinking, writing, and talking about the nature of love for a long time and will do so for eons. How am I suppose to make a concise statement or quantify something that's so indescribable? Despite how significant and moving this question was, I totally forgot what I said. Something about eating more red meat and kissing people.

             For the longest time, I couldn't figure out how to get iD to make sense. Only a few keywords really illicit any meaningful conversation, severely undercutting any suspension of disbelief. Asking me what love is really threw me off, but asking if my dad is blue really makes the game's seams show.

             My definition of the human race.

             Sometimes, iD will start rambling uncontrollably about all sorts of insane things. Different aspects of iD's past and various emotions all converge at once, complaining about mummies, Napoleon, and Hitler.

             Eventually, I realize the keyword "what" gives the player a very obvious hint. After responding to it, iD goes into great detail explaining the object he possessed. Here, iD regrets being a straw that saved Adolf Hitler from drowning. 

            iD was evidently there for a lot of important events. Too many of them are overtly biblical in nature: the crucifix that Jesus died on, the tablet on which the ten commandments were written, and the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Thankfully, iD was also a doomsday machine that destroyed Atlantis, the bullet that shot Archduke Ferdinand, and some other secular objects as well.

             This hint was very, very stupid.

             For this will be the coin that buys you. Why all the cryptic garbage after I became very good friends with iD? If I thought the ghost or whatever was going to be an asshole, I wouldn't have wasted an hour typing in random keywords for responses. 

             At certain points, iD is a striking experience, forcing you to really think. Most of the time it's an idiotic high-concept piece that doesn't know what to do with a good idea. To be fair, the gimmick is fun, and I love reading iD's psychotic ramblings when he really goes off the deep end, but most of the time, there's just not enough to justify playing it more than once. Seaman's a much better conversationalist.

             One of the things that bothers me is how the game doesn't give the player any freedom. The ultimate objective is to determine where iD was in the past and gain its trust, yet why should I care? Is the fact that it's a ghost in my Spectrum supposed to keep me engaged for an hour plus? Why can't we talk about anything else? If more options were made available to the player, iD could have been something great. Instead, it's a frustrating mess.

             Not sure what to play next. I'm thinking about finishing X-Men Destiny or playing this adventure game I started months ago called Hitchcock. It was weird: all I did the entire game was find dead bodies. That'll probably make for a more amusing blog post, but I don't want to get stuck in a rut playing adventure game after adventure game. We'll see how it turns out.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Diary Entry #34: Retail Repulsion and Little Else

             Today, I finished up all my research for a new Hardcore Gaming 101 article. My Destiny of an Emperor article can be found here, detailing the various RPG and strategy games in the long-running Tenchi Wo Kurau series. There's also a great article about Q*Bert on the website that inspired me to purchase the game boy port, so be sure to sift through that, too.

             Today, I probably had the worst experience ever with a retail game store. I brought up nine items to be priced. This took him about six minutes, after which I told him I didn't want three of those games. After that, he started shuffling around a bunch of random stuff for about five minutes until he had all six of the games into two piles. It all probably made sense somehow, since the store offers a buy two get one free deal on all used games, but still, I've been up at the counter for over ten minutes already and the line behind is growing rather large.

             Eventually, he moves to the back of the room to find the PSP disc for one of my games. This turns into a crazy five minute fiasco, with the worker grabbing UMDs and throwing them all over the place. I finally told him I just wanted the three Game Boy games I picked out, TMNT 3: Radical Rescue, Kirby's Pinball Land, and Spy Vs. Spy.

             He gives me three final prices. First he says 33 dollars. I ask him again how much the games cost four times before he says it's 20 dollars. I remind him that there's the buy two get one free deal. He finally comes up with 14 dollars, which I say agree to and hand him my card. He goes in the back for three minutes to find a pen, brings one back for me to sign, and I run the hell out of there. This whole thing had to take over twenty minutes, and the five people behind me must have been amazed that this went on for ages.

             While researching for my article, I gave Discs of Tron a try. It's easily one of the coolest games ever. All you do is jump on giant discs while throwing smaller discs at your opponents. Minutes of excitement!

             With a recent death in my family, I haven't really been motivated to play video games as much. I think working on this next article will help me to get my mind off all the negativity and keep me focused on the things I love. I want to discuss some of my gaming experiences with the person I lost someday, but right now it's too difficult to even think about. Next time!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Diary Entry #33: Spider-Man Riding Helicopter Blades and Terrarian Impressions

             Shifting away from my current Alien obsession, I started looking up Spider-Man games for no apparent reason. In this day and age, Spider-Man games are all web-slinging through big city affairs, with the occasional DS exclusive Metroidvania thrown in to spice things up. These are a far cry from the Spider-Man games of my youth: silly platformers and beat-em-ups that just happen to feature the character.

             One of the more popular Spider-Man games of the time was the Amazing Spider-Man for Game Boy. At the time, Game Boy games were pretty threadbare, largely twenty minute experiences like Super Mario Land that pale in comparison to their home console counterparts. Surprisingly, Spider-Man dispels that myth, featuring an lengthier gameplay experience that challenges throughout.

             The game starts with Spider-Man in full garb answering his home phone, which actually looks more like a high school gym locker with an antennae on top. Whatever villain informs Spidey that he's captured Mary Jane, the long-time girlfriend of our hero. Spider-Man puts down his locker-shaped walkie-talkie and gets to some ass-kicking.

             The ass-kicking in this game follows the same formula as the NES classic Kung Fu: walk to the right, punch someone, walk to the right, kick someone, until you finally reach the boss. It's actually much better than its inspiration, featuring more varied level design and the ability to shoot web glorbs.

              Boss battles are equally satisfying, requiring you to memorize a simple movement pattern and start punching away when the opportunity arises. Many of the bosses constantly fly around the screen or pop around the screen randomly, connecting blows whenever you make an error. It's run-of-the-mill 8-bit action stuff, but I can't think of a better example of it on the Game Boy.

             There are two building climbing and roof top levels. The former sections require you to scale a building, punching baddies who pop out of windows and dodging random junk that falls from above. After reaching the top, the roof portion immediately begins, stealing the show with web-swinging action. If you thought Spider-Man 2 on PS2 featured good web-swinging, get ready for some 2D push-the-jump-button-twice-to-engage excitement.

             One of the less loved parts of old-school action games are the common usage of small enemies that hone in on the player. Castlevania had its Medusa heads, Mega Man II had its Stack O' Cans, and Spider-Man has bats and giant mosquitoes. These can be particularly tricky in the rooftop sequences since one touch can knock you off the web, causing you to plummet to the unforgiving concrete floor of New York.

             The only thing I really dislike about the game are the between level cutscenes. They always feature Spider-Man hopping on his walkie-talkie to briefly mince words with the next boss. Why are these superheros and arch-villains always so personable? They get some sick, twisted pleasure out of calling someone a "Spider-fool" or a "bowl brain". I'd simply call my rival an asshole and be on my merry way.

             Mary Jane really needs to lay off the crack. I guess Spider-Man likes her. The following discussion ensues:

             You know, based on how often Spider-Man gets on the phone with all of his enemies, it would seem that they're all pretty good friends. Stupid story aside, Spider-Man is a great game and a classic of the Game Boy's infancy. Play it now.

             I tried Amazing Spider-Man 2 and 3 for Game Boy, and both were awful. The sprites are really small and enemy hit detection is far wonkier. Levels are much larger and open-ended, but lack the satisfying straight-forward gameplay of the original. Evidently it features more adventure elements, although Spider-Man 3 starts with the incredibly stupid "kill this many muggers" setup that kills any sort of engagement in a game. Are there only 20 muggers in the area, or does Spider-Man have a quota he needs to reach before he takes off?

             The Amazing Spider-Man for DOS is more up my alley. An underwhelming title screen that asks how many colors I need. I opt to go with the flashy 16 color VGA mode. While a little too high-tech for my blood, I figure you've stared at enough grayscale images for one diary entry.

             At the beginning of the game, Spider-Man has to jump on the spinning blade of a helicopter to scale this building. R2-D2 casually maneuvers about his office on the top floor of this factory.

             Around the factory are many closed doors. In order to open them , Spider-Man must touch various buttons located throughout the facility. In this sense, the game quickly becomes more of a puzzle platformer than an action game. Enemies like the robot in the picture are in some areas, yet they rarely do anything aside from walking back and forth. You don't even have a way to attack them, ridding the game of any action pretensions.

             Levels start off in areas with a giant clapperboard. Standing on the floor gems heals Spider-Man, requiring you to head back multiple times per level if your evasion skills are lacking. As you can see, Spidey also has the ability to climb up or swing on his web, a key feature in several platforming sections.

             I love the bloody crucifix, but these wide open areas and many screens are hampered by one glaring issue: Spider-Man is the slowest creature on Earth. Altering DOSbox's emulation speed did little to fix the problem, even making the game slower once I reached a certain point.

              Moving about this room, experimenting with each button, figuring out whether this or that door needs to be opened, everything takes a lot of time. It probably will take me hours to get through the game, and with no save feature, there's no way I can play this for the next few weeks.

             Overall, Spider-Man is an 80's PC platforming dream. Considering all you really do is push buttons in sequence, the puzzles are surprisingly engaging and incredibly approachable. This combination of simplicity and complexity is something I've never before seen in PC/video games, and I'm eager to find more button push-em-ups in the future.

             I also watched my girlfriend play Terraria yesterday while I finished up Aliens: Colonial Marines. I don't even want to talk about how disappointing Colonial Marines was. I came in expecting a 2/10 game, and I got a .5/10 title. I'm about to start X-Men Destiny, and I hope and pray it's a better game. Anyway, here's some notes about Terraria.

             This game looked like crap at first. It doesn't seem to let you really play with the crafting like Minecraft did, simply giving you a variety of stuff you can craft with the raw materials you have. This at first was pretty disconcerting, but there still is incentive to find materials to make cooler items.

             Crystal slaughtered this teeny weeny bunny with an axe. It was pretty cool.

             Crystal decided to explore this tree when she realized there was a deep pit going down the center of it. The side-scrolling perspective makes finding underground areas pretty easy, which is good for those who love to dungeon crawl. 

             While exploring the tree, Crystal discovers this random room. Who made or lived in this nook is uncertain, but they hopefully won't miss their chairs, table, or treasure chest.

             Rope is a pretty useful tool. It can be thrown pretty far from where you stand, making most unreachable areas accessible. Unfortunately, it didn't protect Crystal's life. 

             After rebirth, Crystal starts creating a small abode near her spawn point. Note the tables, chairs, and chest stolen from the random room. Crystal also toyed with the crafting, eventually making fancier candles, colored torches, and a fireplace. Lots of fire stuff.

             It's fun to make your own platforms! Getting around is as easy as clicking your mouse button to lay some dirt on the wall. Crystal preferred to block off this area, lest an enemy zombie sneak in and gain access to her new abode.

             As in Minecraft, you just have to hole up for the night sometimes. Crystal figured out that buildings only become homes when stone wall tiles are placed on the walls, which inspired...

...the creation of this small town. Crystal built a bunch of homes that people will eventually move into, and she can even start assigning houses to specific characters. Residents often have a variety of occupations, ranging from painters to merchants to demolition experts. 

             It's unclear how deep this dungeons go. The game's vertical space seems much incredibly tall, although the game is probably just over-compensating for the fact that it lacks one of Minecraft's dimensions. Once we start playing multi-player, I'll absolutely adore all of the exploration.

             Crystal expanded her home, adding a cute little basement with a barrel, a garbage can, and a wood cutting table. Although quite the hodgepodge, real basements were designed to have random junk stored in them, so why not Terrarian basements.

             I recently played through the Deadpool game, a spotty but mostly good combo-driven beat-em-up/third-person shooter game. While short, I felt like the game's brevity did the gameplay justice; by the time Deadpool had run out of interesting new ideas, it was about to end. That's the sign of a well made game. In addition to buying X-Men Destiny today, I also got Neverdead, which the store clerk told me features tons of dismemberment. I'm very excited about this. On to X-Men Destiny!