29 October 2011

The Toejam and Earl Gallery

Anyone who knows me knows that I love Toejam and Earl, mostly because I never shut up about it. It just frustrates me that there's a game so eminently replayable; a game that still stands tall 20 years on from its release, and yet nobody's even heard of it. In many ways I feel as though I'm loving it enough (and playing it enough) for the rest of the world. And so it came as no surprise to my friends and family that my next article on IGN would address the game and its longevity for its 20th birthday (in 3,000 words no less).

What also frustrated me was the absolute dearth of material on the internet concerning this fantastic game, and so I wanted to write something comprehensive that did the game justice; an 'evergreen' article that people could continue to refer to in the future. The only Toejam and Earl images on the internet were lazily screencapped within the first 5 levels with only one player present on the screen.  For a game known for its cooperative two-player, this would not do. So I called my sister in for a playthrough and we tried to capture the essence of Toejam and Earl's trademark madness and humour in pictures. These are those pictures:

24 October 2011

Arkham: An Open and Shut Case

"None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you. You're locked up in here with me."
~Rorschach, Watchmen

Batman: Arkham Asylum is a lot of fun to play, mostly because it empowers the player to turn the whole predator/prey relationship on its head with a simple touch of a button.  The player - as Batman - haunts the halls of Arkham Asylum, putting the fear of God into the souls of Gotham's worst.

Having now played Arkham City, I think a great deal of that feeling came from its tight spaces and dark corners.  I say this because the sequel is very much the opposite of that: a sprawling metropolis with wide, open spaces, and very few places to hide.  One thing I do enjoy about the open world setting is the ability to grapple and glide across the city a la Spiderman 2. It is very true to the comics' depiction of Batman on patrol, stopping trouble wherever it lurks.  Granted, Arkham City itself serves more as an overworld linking those tight, dark spaces together, but it comes as no surprise to me that Arkham Asylum's stealthy brand of gameplay really shines through indoors.

The inverted takedown: Arkham's bread and butter

I'm sure I would have complained about the ridiculous number of gargoyles placed throughout Arkham Asylum's levels at some stage, but one thing that is glaringly absent from Arkham City's overworld play is the inverted takedown.  This is the one move that makes me feel like Batman, picking off thugs one by one, striking fear into the hearts of those remaining.

See, my Batman power fantasy is seriously disrupted by the fact that I am getting my ass kicked on a regular basis.  I chose the 'hard' difficulty because it came up by default, and I'm too stubborn to restart the game on a lower difficulty (because you can't change it mid-game).  I think probably the main difference between 'hard' and 'medium' is the sheer amount of punching and kicking that it takes to subdue an Arkham inmate.  Add to that the fact that I've not yet stumbled upon a method of whittling down large groups out in the open, and I'm left with a major fistfight on my hands at every turn.  These goons are nigh-on invincible, and it's near impossible to perform a takedown of any kind with at least three of them at your back at any time.

The Arkham Chopper: Gotham's Greatest Murderer

Once it took me so long to dismantle the horde that I was gattled to death by a helicopter at the fight's conclusion - very discouraging - I'm fairly certain it had travelled miles to reach me!  But who knows?  Maybe I'll be refined in the fire, as I was in Ninja Gaiden or Spartan: Total Warrior, and it will all become second nature.  In the meantime, though, the flow and pace of Arkham City is being severely hampered by its excruciating combat conditions.

21 October 2011

Going Batty

A funny thing happened to me at the EB Expo this year.  A Warner Bros. rep asked me if I was a Batman fan.  I was a bit coy with him - I told him I had two bookshelves full of comics and that Batman took up two of those shelves - but I was reticent to admit that he was my favourite comic book character.  I just said that he must be a great character, because nearly every great comic book writer has had a Batman story in them.

When I got home, my wife asked me if I was going to get the new Batman game (word travels fast).  I was coy with her too; I just told her that I don't usually buy new release videogames because they're too expensive.

Flash forward to yesterday.  I have a shower, eat breakfast, wash my hands with my Batman handwash, pack my Batman backpack studded with Batman badges and go to work.  On my lunch break, I look up Arkham City on Ecogamer *just to check* what price it's going for.  The price is right.  I order lunch and read a Batman comic while I eat.  I walk into the store and I purchase Arkham City.  I take it back to work and put it in my Batman bag.  At 5 o'clock I race home, pull the game out of my Bat-pack and start playing.

Yeah, I might be a Batman fan.

[This post was written while wearing a Superman shirt.]

20 October 2011

The Vita Will Tank at Australian Retail

Sony Computer Entertainment Australia has just announced the launch date and retail price of the Playstation Vita in Australia, and people are spitting chips over it.  We are looking at a launch price of $349.99 AUD for the Wi-Fi model and $449.99 AUD for the 3G model.

[This is the part where I talk to Sony as if Sony are actually reading this blog.]

Sony, this kind of crap used to float 6 years ago, but not anymore.  The world has grown smaller, not larger, and Aussie gamers are savvy to what the rest of the world is paying.  Australian retailers are no longer competing against each other; they're competing against the world, and they're competing against the online space in particular.  And that is why I believe the PS Vita will tank at Australian retail.  With the Aussie dollar riding high, expect Australian gamers to import in droves while the price is this unreasonable.

To put this in context, I paid $400 AUD for a Nintendo Wii at launch in 2006.  US gamers were paying $250.  The Australian dollar was sitting around the 79 cent mark at that point in time.  As I write, $250 US is currently worth $244.46 AUD; which happens to be the price of the Wi-Fi PS Vita at launch in America.

Australian consumers aren't unreasonable; they understand there are shipping costs associated with getting these products to our remote shores (although, truth be told, it all has to be shipped from China anyway).  But someone's hand is in the cookie jar here.  Whoever that is will be responsible for driving gamers into the arms of importers and online retail.

Such is life.

18 October 2011

Top 10 Snarky Impressions of EB Expo 2011

Here are my top ten, half-cocked impressions of the EB Games Expo 2011:
  1. The queuing system really sucked.  Big time.  It was not at all clear where members of the media were supposed to register. After a lot of wandering around aimlessly, reading the signs, and even following [conflicting] directions from EB staff, it became clear that the punters' queue was blocking the media registration spot.  Having not yet been registered as a member of the press, it looked like I was simply pushing in. 
  2. The press were not welcome.  Even then, I did not receive the press kit that I was originally supposed to receive in the mail, so I basically received less information than the punters.  I probably missed several press conferences and I didn't find the write-up room until I was ready to leave.  I could count the members of the press in attendance on both hands - most of them were either photographers or fansite bloggers - so you can imagine how empty those press conferences probably were.  In retrospect, I find it incredibly hard to believe that Peter Moore did not have time for an interview.  Aside from all that, I had to line up with the "VIPs" who actually paid extra for their status, just to get my hands on the latest games.  I don't know, maybe I was being too nice and I could have pushed in, but I shouldn't have had to.
  3. Videogames are dead.  This is a gaming expo and yet I spent the first hour or so watching videogames on a giant screen.  Oh, and motorbikes.  About half an hour of motorbikes.  Don't get me wrong, their stunts were impressive to say the least, but last time I checked, this thing was about videogames.  At this point they were beginning to look like an afterthought.
  4. The lost art of carefully crafted demos.  And when I finally got my hands on the games, I had to sit through five minutes worth of cutscenes just to get to the actual game part!  Main offenders: Uncharted 3, The Darkness II, Final Fantasy XIII-2 and Mass Effect 3.  Even then, these demos were old - in fact, they were the same ones shown at E3 in May.  So while people are playing three hours of Skyrim over at a comic convention in New York, we're watching a 25-minute video at a gaming expo.  Go figure.
  5. Sega still has no idea what they're doing with Sonic the Hedgehog.  Sure, half the levels were 2D, and Sonic nearly felt like Sonic control-wise, but the level design is simply not there.  It's as though the multi-tiered City Escape level was randomly cobbled together.
  6. Player agency is king.  My games of show: Saints Row: The Third and Mario Kart 7.  Why?  They were the only two that let me just play the friggin' game!
  7. Skyrim is great and all, but it ain't no Fallout.  Elder Scrolls V looked very pretty, and there's certainly no shortage of things to do in it, but a post-nuclear Washington DC still trumps a Tolkien fantasy land any day.  The Dungeons and Dragons card was played out long ago.
  8. Gamers love Battlefiend, but they hate Origin.  I have to confess, even I was impressed with Battlefield 3 and its Frostbite 2 engine.  I was even more impressed with Peter Moore's ability to take the anti-Origin heckling in his stride.  Despite all the negative press they've been getting, I think EA is one of the few publishers with a clear vision of where gaming is headed over the next few years.
  9. Small things amuse...The most impressive feature of Halo Anniversary is the ability to switch between old Halo 1 and new Halo 1 at the press of a button.  I just couldn't stop doing it!
  10. The venue was great.  Really great.  Sure, the Gold Coast is a bit of a drive, but parking at the Exhibition Centre was plentiful, and only ten bucks.  That's unheard of in Brisbane, which would have been brought to its knees by an event like this.  Apparently there was a hail storm in the Gold Coast during the afternoon - I did not find this out until two days later!

16 October 2011

Indignance in the face of Intelligent AI

Monkeys.  I hate them.
I don't like monkeys.  I don't like dolphins either.  Why?  Because I think they think they're smarter than us, and they're not.  When I see a monkey doing anything vaguely human-like, I feel threatened.

So you can imagine how I felt when I heard the news that IBM had finally developed AI that could beat human players at Pong.  They are being referred to as "cognitive computer chips", and one of these cognitive computers actually learned to play (and beat humans at) Pong.

I was even more alarmed at the suggestion that a freeware Pong clone IBM developed back in 2006 may have made us unwitting beta-testers for this technology over the past five years.  Indignant, I immediately booted up the game, determined to assert my gaming supremacy over this so-called "intelligence".  The first time around, the AI beat me 15-12.  I was furious and tried again.  This time:

Take that, you little mongrel!
I was overjoyed at having beaten the little blighter, but still, the fear that there's another, more powerful Pong rival out there still lingers.

Perhaps we're not so bright after all.  If it's one thing I've learned from Terminator, we're the only ones dumb enough to build something better than us in every conceivable way.

You can play IBM Tennis here.  If you dare.

14 October 2011

On Strike

Jungle Strike

Does anyone else find it amusing that Jungle Strike starts in a city and Urban Strike starts in a jungle?

Urban Strike

Just sayin'.

13 October 2011

Knytt Stories: Dream Weaver

Knytt Stories is perhaps the most beautiful game I've ever played.  There's nothing flashy about it, but its beauty, both in atmosphere and gameplay, lies in its simplicity.

Its command of form and colour is second to none, evoking curiosity and wonder at every turn.  Every screen is earmarked by little intricacies - birds, insects, snowfall, and glistening crystals - forming the impression of a living, breathing world that exists even when the player isn't there.

By its creator's own admission, there's nothing particularly original about Knytt Stories - it's essentially a Metroid clone in design - but it distills each element into its purest form.  Like Metroid, the game is set in a foreign land and fosters that sense of isolation and "other-ness".

Again like Metroid, the entire game is one large "circuit breaker" puzzle.  The game world consists of a single sprawling level, which opens up as the player gains new skills.  Most platformers use items as breadcrumbs to encourage player exploration.  The only items in Knytt Stories are significant and skill-expanding - the floating jump, the double-jump, the hologram - and yet they are merely tools for further exploration.  Beauty is the sole motivator for progression and the reward is getting to see more of that beauty.

Knytt Stories is so confident in this design that it refuses to fall back on combat; not as a motivator, not as a solution to problems.  This is in-keeping with the game's story: the game world is corrupted by a strange machine, so if a creature attacks you, it's only because its nature has been corrupted by the machine.  Violence clearly doesn't solve anything in this scenario, and so evasion becomes a key maneuver in the game, aided by clever item use.  The umbrella, for instance, can be used to glide across ravines, but it can also be used to shelter the player from falling projectiles.  This keeps the focus firmly on pure platforming.

There's no separation between areas of the game, no loading times, nothing to disturb the flow of play.  Save portals are inconspicuously built into the floor (preventing distraction), and littered conveniently throughout the environment (preventing frustration).  The player need only tap the 'down' button while running past and the game is saved without so much as a menu or pop-up.  Knytt Stories is a one hit, one kill affair, which goes hand in hand with its efficient design.  If you don't have combat, you don't need to stand around getting killed, you don't need a health gauge, and you don't need to kleptomaniacally collect doodads to refill health or ammunition.  First person games have been moving towards this efficiency for years now - regenerative health takes at least one element of item collection out of the equation - but few if any have been brave enough to go the whole hog (even Mirror's Edge chickened out to its own detriment).  If you do die in Knytt Stories (and you will, often), the player immediately respawns at their last save portal, which is never far away.  In this way, the flow of the game is never placed in jeopardy.

The sound design of Knytt Stories stays true to its mantra of beauty in simplicity.  The ambient noises of waterfalls and singing birds punctuates the constant rhythm laid down by the protagonist's footsteps.  The sparseness of these sounds creates a nice envelope for the music when it bubbles to the surface.  The soundtrack runs the gamut of Eno-like ambiance during to apocalyptic techno, emerging only to mark set-pieces of awe and dread.

Knytt Stories is a breath-taking game that filled me with awe.  What I found amazing was the efficiency and restraint it took to produce this effect.  By trimming the fat, Nifflas cut straight to the heart of what made Metroid so great in the first place.  The result is a game dripping with atmosphere that plays as smooth as silk.

Knytt Stories is a freeware game for the PC, developed and designed by Nifflas.  Nifflas' games are available for download and for purchase on his website.

08 October 2011

What's Stuck in Jack's Craw?

Jack Claw is a top-down action scroller built around an interesting mechanic: Jack's Claw.  The Claw is a Doc Ock-like tentacle protruding from the protagonist's right arm that can be used to grip, lift, smash, crush, and throw just about anything.  Unfortunately, the core mechanic falls down in execution.  The mouse controls for The Claw simply aren't sensitive enough to forcefully smash or throw anything.  The result is a very calm and considered Claw, too slow to have any fun with: the fun of wrecking things, slamming cars from wall to wall, throwing guys at high velocity into faraway dumpsters.  With all the physics and destructable environments firmly in place, it really is a missed opportunity.  Frozenbyte can attest to this, as they were forced to abandon the project to save the company's future.

Presentationally, the game is quite strong, if not a little cliché.  Jack has broken out of jail, on the run from the authorities in a rundown town.  The setup draws heavily on the comic book stylings of Sin City, from the [captioned] opening monologues to the 40s-era décor.  There's a hint of Tarantino in there as well, with Bombora-esque surf rock undercutting it.

At this point Jack Claw consists of only one level, and can be finished in under five minutes, so it's better that you go in thinking of it more as a prototype than a full game.  Having said that, the game does come with a level editor, so perhaps the story doesn't end here.

Jack Claw is a computer game developed by Frozenbyte.  You can download it as part of the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle.   You can also take part in the game's future on the Frozenbyte forums.

06 October 2011


I haven't felt this daft in a long time.  I've been gorging myself on press releases from Capcom for more than a decade and only now has it dawned on me: 'Capcom Unity' is short for 'Capcom Community'.  I only realised this as I was listening to Destructoid's Podtoid and they were discussing how community managers copped a lot of flak for corporate decisions that even they are bummed about.  When the discussion moved onto Seth Killian, Community Manager at Capcom, and the healthy relationship the company has fostered with its fans, I finally saw the title of their fan site the way I was always meant to: Capcommunity.

Of course, once I realised why it never dawned on me, that cloud of daftness lifted immediately: it's not my fault I didn't get it, it's Capcom's!

See, it all comes back to the basic rules of grammar.  If you want the end of the first word to form the beginning of the next word, they need to flow together.  Putting spaces or hyphens in between two words breaks that all-important flow.  In poetry, a hyphen indicates a four-second pause - that's the longest pause in poetry.  Officially, Capcom-Unity is hyphenated, however, many gaming news articles have named 'Capcom Unity' as the source over the years.  And that's why I've never read the word the way Capcom intended all this time.  So there.

And so it comes to pass that my humiliation has been replaced with indignation. 

Dear Capcom,

If you want people to understand your clever pun, you're going to have to put those words together.  And you're going to need another 'm'.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you:


04 October 2011


Glitch is the logical lovechild of Tiny Speck (the makers of Flickr) and Keita Takahashi (the maker of Katamari Damacy), but I must confess, I'm not entirely certain how to take it.  It definitely feels like a new breed of game; a strange hybrid between Blueberry Garden and a social network.

As someone who has been brought up on games, I felt that Glitch coddled me too much in its opening moments.  I wanted to explore this strange new world for myself, and work out how it ticks.  Nonetheless, I appreciate that I am probably not Glitch's target audience.  Once all the tutorialising is out of the way, the game does evoke a living, breathing world, ever changed by its inhabitants.  In fact, Glitch offers precisely eleven worlds to explore, each of which resides within the particularly imaginative mind of a giant.  Players interact with most objects and creatures in the game, and some actions have a tangible and lasting effect on the game's environments.  Players can interact with each other as well, and while the feeling of community really contributes to that sense of a living, breathing world, some of the social networking elements honestly feel like a distraction to the game itself.  I take my hat off to whoever can manage to multi-task these seemingly disparate elements.

There are energy and mood levels to attend to as well, which again feel like a distraction - an unnecessary game-y element - to the game's explorative core.  It didn't take me long to fill my inventory with food items (designed to increase my energy and mood levels) but I never seemed to need them.  Your avatar has experience levels as well, which at least gives you something to shoot for.

In a way, Glitch lacks confidence in the attractiveness of its core gameplay, and I don't think it should.  I would love to see the game shed its unnecessary game conventions and social networking elements to put the spotlight back on the fresh and the new.  The prospect of building and shaping an imaginary future with other players is something too compelling to pass up.

Glitch is a web-based massively multiplayer online game designed by Tiny Speck and Keita Takahashi.  Sign up here to play the game (there is a waiting list).