Monthly Archives: October 2012

Gaming Hour with Otter: SERIES REBOOT!!!!!!111

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Hi, internet! I am not going to offer any explanation whatsoever for my long absence. Instead, I’m going to talk about video games.

This is going to be a little different than last time. I discovered it’s really hard to play a game while taking constant screenshots of it and still keep track of the storyline. So this is going to be more of a standard video game review thingy.

And now, for our first game…

GAME: Psychonauts
PRODUCER: Double Fine
YEAR OF RELEASE: 2005
GENRE: Platformer
RATING: T

Read the rest of this entry

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Nostalgia in Review: The Hobbit

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Well, it’s been far too long since I wrote the first Nostalgia in Review, but I’ve finally gotten around to replaying another one of my favorite childhood games.

The rules are the same as the first time:

1: The game must be from my childhood.

2: I can’t already have played the game in question in the past few years.

3:  I must go into the game cold, I.E. no wikis, reviews, manuals, Youtube videos, etc.

4: I must play at least 5 hours of the game. (In this case I’ve actually completed the game in question.)

I think that’s all the necessities taken care of, so let’s get to the feature.

The Game:

Title: The Hobbit.

Release date: Nov. 10 2003.

Platforms: GameCube, PlayStation 2, Xbox, PC, and Game Boy Advance.

Genre: Action Adventure.

ESRB rating: E for everyone.

The Nostalgia:

When I think about my favorite games, The Hobbit is easily in the top five. I have so many vivid memories of the game that it feels almost like I’d last played it yesterday, though in reality its been several years.

I remember being so excited when I spotted it on the shelf of a Scholastic book sale–a multi-anual sale held regionally in Scholastic warehouses where, in addition to books, they sell a bizarre collection of old and/or obscure video games. I was already a huge fan of the book, and of the Lord of the Rings movies that had come out so far, and so I had to have it.

Needless to say, I was disappointed to learn that the ancient Windows 98 PC I shared with my brothers didn’t have the horse power to even boot up the game. So instead of playing The Hobbit, I read and reread the manual dozens of times. A few months later, when my parents bought a new PC, their old windows XP machine was passed down to us. The Hobbit was the first game I installed on our new-old computer, and it was well worth the wait.

I loved everything about the game–the music, the art, the combat, and of course, the story. I even loved the giant spiders in the Murkwood level, though I was and remain strongly arachnaphobic. Video game spiders don’t bother me so much anymore, but I can still remember the sheer terror I experienced every time one of those awful, giant monsters jumped out at me from somewhere off screen.

It should be interesting to see how well the game holds up to my memories.

The Reality:

So it turns out The Hobbit is a fairly decent game. Replaying it for the first time in years, I was actually a bit surprised at how well I remembered most of it–and how well the game holds up.

The first thing everyone notices about a game is its graphics, and it’s well known that a great many games don’t hold up well visually almost ten years after their release dates. There are exceptions, however, and the thing that most often saves a game from becoming a headache inducing mess of blurry pixels is strong, stylized art direction.This is a strength that The Hobbit largely possesses. Aside from a few blurry textures and roughness in some of the character models, The Hobbit is a pretty good looking game for nine years old, due in large part to its bright color palate and almost cartoonish art style.

Bag End never looked more colorful.

The second thing everyone notices about a video game is how well, or poorly, it controls, and it is here that The Hobbit stumbles slightly. Now don’t get me wrong, The Hobbit by no means controls poorly, but there here a few little issues that can be annoying. Take for example the camera: Like most video games, the mouse controls the camera. Well, that’s only half true–the mouse controls the X axis, but not the Y axis. By default the Y axis is mapped to the Num 8 and Num 2 keys, which is highly inconvenient. I was able remap the Y axis to the up and down arrow keys, making it slightly more usable, but I was completely unable to attach the Y axis to the mouse.

This wasn’t a huge issue; most of the time I could get by without moving the camera up or down, but I did sometimes find myself wanting to look around more freely. To accomplish this I often just used the game’s free aim mode, used for precise stone throwing, which actually gives the mouse full camera control. But even that has its problems; you can’t walk around in free aim, and the camera movement is frustratingly slow.

Free aim is useful for sniping enemies with stones.

Originally the game supported gamepads, and looking at the manual it seems the controls on a gamepad may have been better, but I was unable to find out for sure because the game failed to map properly to the wired Xbox 360 controller I tried to use.

Aside from the camera, however, I really have no complaints. The platforming is fine and combat controls well, thanks in part to a Zelda-esque targeting system. In fact, the targeting isn’t the only thing reminiscent of the Zelda franchise. The two games share similar health systems as well. Instead of hearts, Bilbo’s health is represented by red “bubbles,” each of which has multiple hit points. The number of health bubbles is increased either by filling a meter full of “Courage Points,” or buying an expensive potion from the end of level vendor. Courage Points are fairly abundant–low value blue courage points are used to mark the levels critical path, mid level points are dropped by defeated enemies, and higher level points float in hard to reach or dangerous places.

Defeated enemies quite literally explode into courage points.

The Hobbit is in many ways a fairly standard action adventure game. Most levels are a mix of platforming, combat, puzzle solving, and the occasional cut scene. In fact, The Hobbit really doesn’t sound like anything special on paper. What makes it special is how well all the pieces come together. All of the levels feel well paced, with just the right mix of action and platforming, and the license helps give the game a wonderful atmosphere.

I remembered this puzzle being a lot harder.

Playing through the game, I really felt like the people who made it were fans of Middle Earth and treated the world with respect. Little things, such as the fact that mushrooms restore health, put established Tolkien lore to good, and amusing, use. Of course there are some liberties taken in the interest of turning The Hobbit into a game, but they all fit well into the story and feel like they could have been there all along.

They might not look very appetizing, but those green mushrooms have saved Bilbo’s life many a time.

There are some disappointments when it comes to the story, however, namely in the pre level cutscenes. The cutscenes, which consist of an interesting mix of narrated illustrations and impressive (but low res) CGI, feel rushed, failing to provide more than a minimal amount of context and information. This isn’t generally a problem if you’re familiar with the book, but it would have been nice to see a little more of the excellent story find its way into the game.

Replaying and reviewing The Hobbit has been an interesting experience. It’s proved far harder than I’d expected to separate my nostalgia from the reality of the game, and I suspect I might look more fondly on it than someone who’d never played it before. That said, I feel confident in saying that The Hobbit is a good, well crafted game, and one that any fan of middle earth should enjoy.

The entrance hall of Erebor.

I can’t help but wonder, though, what will become of this game in the future. It can’t be found on Steam or Good Old Games. There a a few copies left floating around Amazon, but how long before they disappear? I don’t believe the game was ever very popular, and the studio that made it no longer exists. I think it likely that The Hobbit will probably just fade away, just another decent but unimportant game lost to ever changing hardware and slowly degrading CDs.

Well, I don’t want to end on a depressing note, so let me tell you real quickly about the soundtrack, which I can’t believe I almost forgot. The music in The Hobbit is excellent. It’s beautiful, it’s atmospheric, it’s encouraging and, well, just listen for yourself. And if that’s not enough, try this. And if you still want more, Youtube has plenty where that came from.

~NekoShogun

More Nostalgia in Review:

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.

The Button: A Short Story

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Hi there, remember me? Yeah, I know, it’s been a while. I’ve been a bit distracted lately with other things, but I’m back (I think) and plan on starting to post more often again (although as I recall I’ve said similar things in the past, and look how that went).

Anyway, I should get to the point of this post. A little while ago I submitted a short story to the most recent round of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction Contest. The rules of the contest are that the story must be based on the contest prompt (in this case, all stories must be about a US president, real of fictional), and all stories must be under 600 words.

When I sat down to write, the story I ended up with was about 850 words long, meaning I had to cut 250. 250 words might not sound like a lot under normal circumstances, but in this case it meant cutting and simplifying a significant portion of the story. I think the final version turned out well, but I did miss those extra words, so I thought I’d post the original, uncut version here.

So, without further ado, The Button.

The Button

The president held his hand above the button, poised to strike. A drop of sweat inched its way down his cheek; his fingers twitched to the rhythm of his pulse. To his right a massive clock beeped with each passing second. He stared sightlessly down at the panel as disjointed images flashed across his paralyzed brain.

He remembered where it all had begun. Was it really only six years since the first election? The memories that had once been so clear now felt stale and far away. Like a postcard from the past a fragment of recollection fell into his hands; an arena—he couldn’t remember the name or the place—filled to capacity with his supporters, all cheering and chanting his name. At the time it had filled him with hope and elation. Now, though, it sounded like the universe taunting him.

The mess had started four months after his swearing in; the attacks, the fear, the disbelief that such a thing could happen, right here, to us, right in our own backyard and oh god what was the world coming to anyway. All his grand plans had gone down the drain as more pressing issues made themselves heard. Troops were mobilized, the draft was reinstated, and the nation held its breath as the world went mad.

For a moment, for a fleeting instant, it seemed that disaster might be averted. But humanity, once riled up, is not easy to contain. Wars broke out along old fault lines, thousands were slaughtered, and great nations began to come apart at the seams.

His popularity, which had once soared to unprecedented levels, crashed down like an avalanche. He lost weight, his hair turned gray, and he aged a decade in four years. When the time came once again for his battered country to choose their leader his rivals screamed for blood. His character was attacked and his leadership questioned as everything came tumbling down around him.

Somehow, despite an endless campaign of slander and abuse, he was reelected. In the end all his competition just fell away, probably realizing it would be easier for the historians if they only had one person to blame for the collapse of civilization.

It made him sick sometimes, to think about everything that had been lost while he was at the helm. But it wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t started the war, he’d tried to stop it! He’d done everything right and still it had all come tumbling down. And if he was honest with himself, that was what really hurt. Not the casualties, not the famine, not the hopeless, endless war. No, what really pissed him off was that it had happened to him, during his tenure. He’d wanted to change the world, to fix the nation and usher in a new golden age of wealth and prosperity for his people. This couldn’t all have waited eight years? If the world had to end, it couldn’t at least have the decency to wait until his presidency had ended?

He knew it was selfish, but he really didn’t care. He could have been a hero, the last great American president. Now, though, he would be remembered as the captain who’d gone down with his ship. The poor sap who had to sit their and watch it all burn.

At least before he’d been able to console himself with the fact that wars like this had happened before, that history was littered with fallen empires and periods of unrest. Then the first nuke went off, and in an instant the world was a few million people emptier.

Three hours later and the surface world was a memory as the government fled below ground to the safety of their bunkers, while above the unlucky masses boiled in fear.

“Mr. President.” The voice hit him like a bucket of ice water, dragging him back to the present. “Sir, we have two minutes left.”

His mouth was a desert; he struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, to open his mouth, to speak.

“You…” He cleared his throat and continued, his voice like sandpaper. “You’re sure my husband made it to the bunker?”

There was silence, an exchanging of glances, then one of the suits that crowded the room nodded.

The president glanced down at the button. It was small and slate gray, flanked on either side by a key, turned and waiting in its slot.

“Sir, the window’s closing!” A uniform this time, a general. He should have known their faces, their names, but that part of his brain had deserted him. They might as well have been mannequins for all he cared. “Sir, please! You have to do it now!”

The president looked back at the button, An alarm went off as a screen counted down from sixty. He could barely hear it above the thundering of his pulse. He sucked in a deep breath and held it, thinking of Erik and hoping he really was safe.

With a sigh the president pushed the button, and the world blew up.

~NekoShogun

Thoughts on Maximum Ride: Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports (plus some thoughts on the trilogy as a whole)

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Oh, where to start with this book. There’s just so much wrong with it!

Okay. Let’s start with the plot. We join the flock in Louisiana, after they broke into an Itex branch in Florida. (Well, it’s only an Itex branch in this book–if I recall correctly, it’s referred to as the headquarters in the previous book.) In possession of a laptop from the branch that they supposedly got after escaping, even though this was never mentioned in the previous book, they’re heading west for no particular reason. Only of course they get captured, because what’s a Maximum Ride book without being captured by the bad guys at least once per book?

This brings us to the one of the more pointless portions of a Maximum Ride book. The first half of the book, really, is dedicated the the flock wandering around, getting captured, and then escaping, which is ultimately pointless; the only thing this section does is to cover a bit of basic setup. After escaping with Ari, the flock split up, Max taking Nudge, Angel, and Ari, and Fang taking Iggy and Gazzy. Fang, Iggy, and Gazzy go on to accomplish absolutely nothing other than not be with the others and do some blogging (more on that later), while Max’s group spend much too long sightseeing in Europe. Finally they get captured again, this time in the real Itex headquarters in Germany. After a bait-and-switch regarding Max’s biological mother, the book climaxes with a corny showdown where nothing really happens.

Obviously there’s a lot wrong with this. The first half of the book is wasted on stuff that could have happened in a fraction of the space, though Max does manage to get her hand made unusable and then have it magically fixed (yay for science fixing an unfixable wound!); there’s a decent sized section set in England and France that’s literally just Max’s group visiting tourist attractions and failing to progress the plot; Fang’s group get a small portion of the book, and yet the only thing of importance they do is blog, rallying kids worldwide to help the flock (which, by the way, is the most contrived, ridiculous, and just plain stupid plotting I’ve ever seen); and in the end, nothing is actually done to stop the bad guys . Seriously. Max flies the Big Bad up into the air, scares her a little bit, ostensibly escapes, and then we skip forward a week or two and the flock have just magically stopped Itex. It’s simply the laziest plotting imaginable.

And then there’s the flock themselves. Over the course of three books, they go from being isolated up in the mountains to visiting tourist attractions to going through some scary stuff, so you’d think they’d change and grow a little bit, right?

Wrong. The Max at the end of the third book is identical to the Max at the beginning of the first book. I cannot think of a single way her character has changed, and while not every story will create growth within its characters, like I said: a lot of stuff happens to the flock that would change them, and it doesn’t. They’re stereotypical kids through and through. It’s infuriating how poorly the characters progress.

It doesn’t help that the characters are incredibly shallow. Max, being our narrator, gets a bit more depth than the others–we see some of what bothers her, what makes her feel happy, but that’s never taken anywhere as it should and so she continues to be a rather flat character. The rest of the flock don’t even get the illusion of depth, sadly. Even though Iggy gets a chapter in the second book where he agonizes over his blindness and he then has a bit of a breakdown, his character never evolves as a part of this and it’s pretty much forgotten after the second book.

I want to talk a little bit about Iggy’s blindness, though. On the one hand, this is really cool–having a disabled hero is great. However, because of Iggy’s poor characterization, he really only has two character traits: his sarcasm, and his blindness. The first book does better, of course, but the second and third books seem to find it necessary to bring up his blindness at least half of the time he’s brought up, rarely for any actual reason. Then there’s the fact that he has magical, impossible echolocation that frees him of half the burden of being blind, which feels like a cheap way out and I think sends a bad message: are you blind? Well, you can still be a hero, but first you’ll need echolocation that works better than possible!

While Iggy is handled pretty poorly, I think that Ari, is easily the worst character in the series. He starts out as an angry villain, resentful of how Jeb treated him in relation to Max, then in the second book he becomes some sort of sociopath, acting without morals and with the mind of the seven-year-old he’s supposed to be. In the third book, however, he goes through a random change of characterization and becomes a lot more grounded and “normal,” and even ends up being a good guy. None of his different characterizations ever make sense in relation to one another, and he reads more like a tool JPatterson uses however is convenient than an actual character.

Going back to the second book, I think it’s easily the worst of the three. Not only is the writing terrible as always, but the plot is almost entirely insignificant–while it does introduce Itex, it doesn’t actually do anything with the company and all of the important information could have been put into the beginning of the third book in place of the unnecessary bits. The first half of the second book, similar to the third, is simply pointless: the most it does is begin some character arcs with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but then those character arcs–Iggy’s resentment, Max’s protectiveness of the flock, Angel’s questionable morals–are completely dropped as if they never happened. It seems as if JPatterson thought the books were going in one direction in the second book, then decided to go somewhere else in the third book without paying heed to what he had already written.

Then there’s the random powers JPatterson gave the characters. Over the course of the first book, Angel is established to have mind reading abilities, Gazzy is established to have voice mimicing powers, and Nudge gains the ability to “read” objects to find out who used them and such. Not only do these powers make no sense whatsoever, but they also seem to exist for no reason whatsoever–Gazzy’s power is never used for anything but throwaway lines and gags, Angel’s powers grow to let her control minds to hurt enemies when convenient, until they gain the magical ability to block it, and Nudge’s power manifests itself just as it’s needed and then is mentioned about three times afterwards. Again, it’s lazy writing.

That’s the thing with these books, really: they’re lazy. JPatterson seems to have put no thought in them, and the random changes in plot and villain motivations even within books makes it clear that he never had any idea where he was trying to go. I mean, let’s take a look at the villain’s actions through the books:

1st book: they capture Angel, leaving the rest of the flock, then alternate between trying to kill the flock and capture them. Makes perfect sense!

2nd book: they randomly attack the flock with no logical goal, then decide to clone Max, replace Max with the clone, put Max into some weird stasis thing, then lead the rest of the flock into an Itex branch to do… something.

3rd book: they capture the flock and try to convince them that everything that had happened so far was a dream. Why they did this, I’m not sure, because they then proceed with a plan to kill the flock in the most drawn-out way possible. Meanwhile, they’re working on a bizarre plan to kill half of the world’s population, and upon capturing the flock a second time they first intend to sell the flock to China (apparently that wasn’t in the picture the first time the flock was captured?), then decide to kill the flock after a drawn-out, nonsensical, pointless competition between Max and a new superhuman they created.

So throughout the first two books, the villains have no discernible goal, and their motivations even seem to change halfway through the third book–it just makes no sense. I simply don’t think that JPatterson had any idea what he was doing the entire time he wrote the series, and I’m really disappointed that he would even consider publishing them. They read like first drafts that had sections he intended to flesh out, change, and make more cohesive, but then he decided that he’d just send them to the publisher. It’s lazy, irresponsible, and I’m just sickened that anyone thought these books were a good idea to publish. Except that since JPatterson is practically a franchise at this point, anything he writes is guaranteed to sell and so there is no limit on what crap he can put out–I bet he’d be able to publish a branded phonebook and have it sell millions. And that’s just irritating.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find a place to put these books where I won’t have to look at them.