Friday, June 27, 2008

Finally Over Final Fantasy

When it comes to video games, my most favored genre has always been that of the Japanese role-playing game, or JRPG. All of my fondest memories as a child are from these games, and I have easily sunk thousands of hours of my life into plumbing their depths. Some of my readers (as if I have any left at this point) who aren't familiar with the genre and my history might think that to be an exaggerated number, but it is absolutely not-- my play-times for Star Ocean 2, Final Fantasy X, and Final Fantasy Tactics alone add up to over five hundred hours (and likely more, since Tactics' clock stops at 99:99). I have always been, first and foremost, an RPG gamer. However, like so many things in my life, that seems to be changing.

I still remember the first time I ever saw an RPG. I was at my older cousin Shane's house in Chipman, and he was playing Phantasy Star on the Sega Master System. I had an Atari at that point, and I had played many games on it, but I was too young (read: stupid) to be able to play something as complicated as an RPG with any degree of success. I didn't care, though-- I would watch him play it for hours, entranced, and subsequent visits to Chipman would always see me running up to his room and literally dragging him out of bed so that I could watch him play. Never before had anything, let alone a game, so completely swept me away, immersing me in an imaginary world populated by flying eyes, giant spiders, and talking cats. I would sit in class or on the bus and dream of being in that world-- I had encountered interactive fantasy (or "Phantasy", as the case may be) for the first time, and I was never to be the same.

I often credit Shane with making me the man I am today (well, not to his face, but privately), having followed in his footsteps in several ways. He was certainly a formative influence on me, and I did idolize him as a child, but I often wonder if I give him too much credit (or, for that matter, give my other older cousin Ryan, who first exposed me to Dungeons & Dragons, too little). More than any one person ever did, video games had a hold on me unlike anything else, from the moment I first laid eyes on them, and much of my life from then on revolved around them, whether it be reading about them (I credit Nintendo Power with teaching me how to read above my age-level), thinking about them (I was often chastised in class for day-dreaming), or spending every spare moment I could find playing them. Hell, I even enrolled in Computer Science because I wasn't ambitious enough to apply to Digipen and figured that UNB CS was my best chance at maybe one day working with video games that didn't involve moving to the other side of the continent. It often feels like every important life decision I ever made started with that one video game that took me to the Algol star system, never to fully return to Earth. I didn't have the knowledge or the experience to measure its quality back then, but it didn't hurt that Phantasy Star happened to be an excellent game, years ahead of its peers in many ways.

Phantasy Star may have been the first game to grab hold of me like this and refuse to let go, but it was far from the last. For the rest of my childhood, I moved from one RPG to the next, losing months of my time at a stretch, and loving every minute of it. I could dedicate an entire blog post to each of those games (and I think I may have already in one or two cases-- I couldn't be bothered to search, and my memory is, as always, poor). First, I got my own SMS and copy of Phantasy Star from my parents. Despite my love and the time invested, it was just too much for me, and my unwillingness/inability to chart dungeon maps on graph paper doomed me to be forever unable to navigate the hazardous dungeons of the ice planet Dezoris. I wouldn't finally beat it until many years later (miraculously, I still have a working SMS and copy of Phantasy Star in my closet, and last time I had it out the battery on the cartridge used to store saved games was still working fine). After giving up on Phantasy Star, my cousin John and I spent a while dicking around with wireframe rats in the Ultima games on his Commodore 64 (we pretty much always made a beeline for the nearest shop and tried to steal ourselves some great equipment, usually getting killed for our trouble) before moving on to the next big RPG in my life-- Dragon Warrior.

Dragon Warrior was inferior to Phantasy Star in almost every way (worse graphics, not as good music, fewer options, paper-thin narrative, only one player character, etc.), but it was, for me, the right game at the right time. Now here was a game I could actually play. I bought it from another older kid for $5, and I don't think I've ever spent $5 better since then. I spent hours playing it, and hours watching John play it, and even my cousin Ann-Marie played it (her first and last RPG, I believe). I had some odd ideas about what constituted good strategy that makes me shake my head now, but I had fun, and I powered through it over the course of several months. However, even though I had fun, it didn't have the same magic as Phantasy Star. The nameless hero of Dragon Warrior (well, he'll always be "JOHNG" to me, but that's beside the point) had nothing on Phantasy Star's brave Alis and her talking cat.

No, it wasn't until the 16-bit generation that I finally found an equal to Phantasy Star, a game that swept me up every bit as thoroughly as it once did, and then proceeded to make me forget all about Alis and her silly cat. Phantasy Star may have been my first love, but it wasn't until Final Fantasy IV (which I then knew as Final Fantasy II) for the Super Nintendo that I knew what real love was. In hindsight, the plot is rather predictable and clichéd, and some of the biggest dramatic moments turn out to be cop-outs, but at the time, I was enthralled, hanging on every word, blown away by every twist of the plot, crying when things were bad (Palom and Porom destroyed my childhood), and laughing when things were light-hearted (oh Edge, she's just not interested). The Dark Knight Cecil's quest for redemption seemed very real to me, and its influence on me cannot be understated. Or John, for that matter-- he still plays a Paladin in pretty much every game where anything close to one is available.

I've played lots of RPGs since then, but trying to talk about them all would be a fool's errand, and, as per usual, I feel like I've diverged significantly from my intended topic, so a Final Fantasy game is a good one to stop on. Suffice it to say, Chrono Trigger soon rocked my world, the Playstation became a JRPG haven, and I was in heaven. For a time.

In that long list of RPGs that I've played to death, you can find every Final Fantasy game (except XI, which doesn't count, and should never have been granted a numeral). Yes, even the first one, which I tracked down at a flea market and went back and played after discovering the series with IV/II. They vary in quality, but they are all excellent for their time, and I love each of them, from my favorite, IV, to the well-loved VII and its poorly-aging CG. And so, it is because of this long beloved history that I have with the series that I recently began playing through Final Fantasy XII, and loving every minute of it.

However, it's the first RPG I've played on a home console in months. Years, maybe? I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong. You see, my gaming habits have been changing a lot as of late. It all started back when the N64 came out. It was supposed to be the RPG system, with screenshots of Earthbound 64 and a new Final Fantasy game, but neither of those games ever materialized, and I was forced to expand my tastes a little. Hundreds of hours of Goldeneye 64 deathmatches later, and I was a changed man. Or so I thought.

Mere months after finally buying a Playstation, I was back to my old habits, playing only RPGs, and that's pretty much how things stayed up until only a year or two ago. And then, one night, while I was complaining to Nathan that I had only one 360 game, and wanted nice stuff to look at on my shiny new TV besides the quickly souring Oblivion, he suggested that I buy Gears of War, because it was supposedly pretty nice-looking and pretty fun. I loved it. He then suggested I go back and try the original Halo, because it's pretty fun too. Three Halo games and a half-dozen other first-person-shooters later and all of a sudden, I have a new favorite genre. The value in being able to finish a game in a weekend instead of over the course of one hundred hours was immeasurable, with my leisure time being only a shadow of what it once was.

Things got even stranger after that. I moved in with Veronica, and she finally convinced me to give World of Warcraft a try, as Aiden, and to a lesser extent, Nathan, had been trying to do for years. I became instantly obsessed, and lost myself in it for months, playing it to the exclusion of all else. Then my decade-old computer finally died, and she got me to try Civilization IV on her PC, and I became an instant fan. Suddenly, I found myself playing not one but two PC games. I hadn't played a PC game seriously since the original Starcraft. However, old habits die hard, and I soon found myself getting that same old craving.

So, I finished up a play-through of Half-Life 2 for 360 that had been stalled for months and then promptly opened up the still shrink-wrapped year-old copy of Final Fantasy XII and booted it up. That nostalgic crystal theme greeted me immediately, and I was lost. It was good to be home. It differs from previous Final Fantasies pretty fundamentally in a number of ways, but not as much as people claim-- it's still Final Fantasy. There are things I like about the new system, and things I don't, but on the whole, I think it works quite well. The narrative is engaging, and I've really enjoyed my time with it thus far.

However, a couple of nights ago I defeated a very tough optional boss, and he revealed a secret passage that led to... nothing. Well, almost nothing, at any rate, with one well-guarded chest containing pocket change. Something was up, so I hit up GameFAQs to have a look. I was not prepared. It turns out that most of the optional side and end-game content that the Final Fantasy series is known for, that I spent much of my youth exhaustively conquering (and being proud of it), had been changed, and not for the better. The design ethic could best be described thusly: complete... arbitrary... BULLSHIT.

The chest I was looking for after finally defeating the optional boss had only a 25% chance to actually contain the sweet loot I was expecting, and, furthermore, had a 20% of possibly not spawning AT ALL. Turns out most of the games best items are like this, but things only get worse from here. Let me give you an example. The most powerful weapon in the game, the Zodiac Spear, can be found in a chest half-way through the game-- a chest that spawns only under very specific conditions. Those conditions? COMPLETELY ARBITRARY. There are four precise chests, found at random points earlier in the game, including the first city (containing a trivial item, like a potion or pocket change), that must not be opened, or the spear chest will not appear later in the game. There is no narrative justification for this, and nowhere in the game is this hinted at. The only way to know is to buy the strategy guide or check the internet. According to the good folks at Square-Enix, this was an intentional design decision to encourage people to play through the game a second time. Hey, Square: FUCK YOU. That's not replayability, it's punishment.

That's it. I've had it. I did my time, I dodged my 200 lighting bolts. I'm done. I just don't care anymore. I'm not going to sit with a walkthrough in my lap so that I can make sure to not open four arbitrary chests for a game-breaking reward. My tolerance for stupid bullshit from video games is very low these days, and the post-game content of FFXII is apparently a big steaming pile of it. I'm going to finish the main narrative, which I'm really enjoying, and then I'm going to try a bit of the post-game stuff, maybe a super-hard boss or two, but the first time it asks me to kill 30 of a certain enemy in a row and then stand in an arbitrary spot for 10 minutes with nothing in-game hinting at any of it, I'm done (BTW, not a made-up example). All Square apparently wants to do is fuck their fans over and make their game an endless, arbitrary, FAQ-mandatory grind, so they can go fuck themselves. I'm just going to have an enjoyable, FAQ-less play-through of the main quest, doing any side-quests I stumble upon along the way, and then move on to the next game, one not designed to frustrate the player. It's working great so far.

This doesn't mean that I won't keep playing Final Fantasy game, or JRPGs. Far from it. I eagerly await the next installment of the former, and have a shelf-full of the latter still waiting to be played. I just won't be obsessed with conquering them utterly anymore. I'll see what can be seen with a moderate amount of effort, and then move on to the next game. I have better ways to spend my time, and nostalgia for older Final Fantasies isn't going to make me forget that. That being said, Final Fantasy IV has always been, and remains, my favorite game of all time, and nothing Square-Enix can do to me will tarnish that. And believe me, they're TRYING.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

New Diet E3, Tastes Like Crap

[Two posts in quick succession! Don't miss the pre-E3 post below this one. If you read them a week apart, you can create the illusion that I'm actually updating! Don't expect this pace to last.]

Yesterday morning, I was excited. Although Microsoft's press conference was fairly forgettable, I had high hopes that Nintendo was going to wow me. Needless to say, they did not, and I'm starting to feel a bit differently about them as a company. To quote Homer: "After the event, even a fool is wise." That is to say, the real Homer. You, know, the one that's not a cartoon character? Nevermind, screw it, here's a quote from my preferred Homer: "Life is just one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead."

I'm going to be quoting a lot. It's a coping mechanism.

The Nintendo presser was awful. I took similar notes to the ones I used in my pseudo live-blog of the Microsoft conference, but when I looked at them afterwards I got pissed off and tossed them in the trash. Here's the Coles' Notes summary: Reggie Fils-Aime masturbated for an hour over how great Nintendo is doing. He spun sales and demographic numbers for half an hour and hit us with repeated media barrages to show how great their products are, from website screen-grabs to YouTube clips and that episode of South Park where Cartman wants a Wii. Also, he introduced some over-priced hunks of plastic and gave a couple of upcoming games some firm release dates (Mario Galaxy on November 12th, Smash Bros. on December 3rd). Oh, and they announced a new Wii Mario Kart for next year, but that was as expected.

I think the whole press conference can be best summed-up by this quote from Family Guy, where Brian narrates The Blair Witch Project for a blind man: "Nothing’s happening... Nothing’s happening... Something about a map... It’s over. A lot of people look pissed."

However, dangled in front of us mid-way through was the promise that Shigeru Miyamoto, god of gaming, would be out later to unveil his new game! And then he did so, and I died a little inside. Miyamoto-san's new "game", if it can rightly be called that, might appeal to masses--hell, it might even take them by storm--but it's not for me. I am clearly not its target audience, nor were any of the press in room, and you could almost sense the disappointment in the air.

WiiFit is a Wii fitness suite that uses a new wireless plastic board that you stand on which senses your weight and how it's balanced/distributed. They trotted out a bunch of Greek gods and goddesses to demonstrate, but I can tell you right now that they didn't get to look like that by wobbling around on a plastic board. It tasks you with a number of stretches and exercises and uses the board's sensors to decide if you're doing it right. It tracks your Body Mass Index over time, and offers some other modes, like a step-dancing mode where you have to step on and off the board in time to music and a mini-game where you head soccer balls.

I think Jeremy Parish says it better than I ever could: "I invented video games. Here is an exercise mat."

All of the above may sound unusually harsh and jaded, but I can't shake the feeling that I've somehow been fundamentally betrayed. I haven't been, though. This is exactly what Nintendo's been promising all along, and I've just been too blinded by love to see it for what it is. Nintendo's always spoken of their "Revolution", and I feel as if I've finally seen a hint of just what that revolution will entail, and been terrified by the sight. It's like I'm sitting in the Galactic Senate and leaning over to the guy next to me: "Hey, is it just me, or is Senator Palpatine acting a bit different?"

At least Metroid Prime 3 is good.

So that was the Nintendo press conference. I didn't get a chance to watch Sony's yet, as I couldn't find a timely recording anywhere last night, and by the time I did I had better things to do (like watch a live stage demo of Mass Effect on Gamespot). Really, though, at this point Sony could just have a big robotic Ken Kutaragi on stage saying "Buy my grill. Buy my grill." (video reference for the ignorant) and they'd walk away with best press conference of show. I doubt I'll watch it at all now, as I haven't been able to cut myself off from all news for a second day. There were a couple of announcements, but nothing huge, and I'm too depressed to talk about it beyond that. I really wanted them to convince me to buy a PS3.

Chris Kohler said it best: "Typically, it's been the 'battle of the press conferences' to see who 'wins E3.' This year, everybody surrendered."

There was one neat press conference so far this year, actually, but it wasn't any of the big 3. Konami send out a cryptic poem before their presser, warning of a big announcement. It was the best press conference ever, as it essentially went like this: "Here's our awesome games, here's our big announcement (Silent Hill 5), we hate the new E3, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." Fifteen minutes, and they were done. Some of the press thought it was a joke at first when they said it was over. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am.

So, that's been the new E3 thus far. I am not impressed, as it looks like everyone has decided to save their big announcements for later events. It's got a day left to win me over, but things aren't looking good. If we're lucky, maybe they'll stick with my titular analogy and bring it back next year as "E3 Classic". Until then, though, I've got a year to sample some competing soft drinks.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sony Is Forcing My Hand

I don't want a Playstation 3. I think that I've made that pretty clear in the past, but it's worth reiterating. It costs too much, it doesn't have any good games, it represents a new media format that I don't want to support, and it is being pushed on me by an arrogant, lying company that has somehow managed to exhaust the massive goodwill generated by the two amazing consoles that preceded it in record time. Also, if I want to get really nit-picky (which I do, because I'm feeling a lot of Sony hate at the moment), its controllers don't rumble (yet), HDMI cables must be purchased separately, and its game boxes are too damn small (is there something wrong with DVD-standard, you pricks?). I don't like Sony, and I don't want their overpriced grill. But I might be about to buy one.

Though it may come as a surprise, I haven't always hated Sony. Far from it, in fact. After their amazing E3 showing two years ago, I was ready to give my first-born child to play their magical future-box. But things turned sour at last year's E3 when they finally announced the price, and they've just gotten steadily worse since then. At this point, I have trouble reconciling in my head the way I feel about Sony now with the way that I felt about them in years past. Well, some years past, at any rate-- if I go back far enough, that love goes right back to hate again.

You see, I've been here before. I didn't want a Playstation either, back when it was competing against the Nintendo 64. I had been a die-hard Nintendo fanboy my entire life, and I wasn't about to turn my back on Nintendo for what looked to me to be the next 3DO or CD-i. As far as I was concerned, it had ugly graphics, it had bad loading times, and it didn't have any good games. I was the last hold-out among my friends, and I still didn't own one several years (roughly four, as I recall) after its launch. After playing my cousin John's PS1 extensively, I had decided that I preferred my N64. But then a friend brought one over and finally showed me a game on it that I had to have (*shakes fist at Aiden*), and I was sold. I bought one the next day, along with a copy of Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete, and I never looked back.

That's the way I've always made console purchasing decisions, really. I can harp all I want about price and features, but what it always ultimately comes down to is that first must-own game, and everything else be damned. On the Sega Master System, it was Phantasy Star. On the NES, it was Dragon Warrior. On the SNES and N64, it was Mario. On the XBox, it was Knights of the Old Republic. Hell, just last year, on the 360, it was Oblivion, as evidenced by the fact that now, over a year later, the only other 360 game that I own is Gears of War (although that number will at least double in the next couple of months, with titles like Blue Dragon, Eternal Sonata, Bioshock, and Halo 3 on the way). If a gaming console has a game that I need, I will buy it, period, even if it is so expensive that only the five richest kings of Europe can afford it.

The only exception to this rule is, amusingly enough, the PS2. When I purchased my Playstation, I purchased a philosophy. I embraced Sony's console of the future, and they could do no wrong. I loved my Playstation, and I bought a shit-ton of games for it (the overwhelming majority of which were role-playing games). When the PS2 came out, I waited outside Toys R Us before the mall opened on launch to make sure that I had one, shitty launch titles and all. In my defense, I wasn't as well-informed then as I am now, and I didn't know how much I would hate Summoner and Kessen, both of which I fought tooth and nail for on launch day and then sold back to EB several months later for a fraction of what I paid for them. And the only reason that I held off that long was so that I could show everyone this video.

That launch was a hard-learned lesson about unwarranted early adoption. I am now on my second PS2, as that first one was one of many launch systems with hardware problems. I paid top dollar for what was, after a full year of ownership, essentially a glorified DVD player. It wasn't until December of 2001, over a full year after my initial hardware purchase, that I finally purchased the first PS2 game that deserved a space on my shelf: Final Fantasy X. Nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but very late in coming. Fortunately, FFX was just the start, and soon the PS2 had a library of quality RPGs to rival even the original Playstation. Unfortunately, however, this epic RPG boon also marked the beginning of the bane of my existence, which my readers have seen me rant about repeatedly and at length: my backlog.

Let's take a moment of silence to remember better times and then move on.

Although I used the term disparagingly above, it is worth noting that the PS2 was my first DVD player, even if I never intended or wanted it to be. In fact, it may surprise some to learn that, up until I purchased my XBox 360, it was my only DVD player. I've never owned a dedicated one, and I doubt I ever will. I've heard many people, some of them friends, speak derisively about people who don't have a dedicated player, claiming that consoles are such drastically inferior players that no intelligent person would settle for one, but, and I say this with all due respect: please kindly go fuck yourselves. In principle, I support my multimedia functionality being on as many discrete devices as possible, and I'd prefer it if none of my consoles played movies (and ideally passed the savings on to me), but the fact of the matter is that they do, and I'd be foolish to ignore it and buy a separate stand-alone player simply on principle. My PS2 and 360 have always given me an entirely enjoyable DVD-viewing experience, and those of you who I addressed above are just being elitist pricks.

Before this post degenerates further into childish name-calling and I lose sight of the topic at hand altogether, allow me to explain how this is relevant. I didn't really have any concept of what a DVD was back when I purchased my PS2-- my VCR was good enough for me. I've never really been much of a videophile, and was even less of one then, so I didn't see what all the fuss was about. The fact that my PS2 could play DVD movies was a fun curiousity that had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to purchase it. I never had any intention of buying even a single non-game DVD. Now, almost seven years later, my shelves are filled with them. I think you can see where I'm going with this. Just to be safe though, I'll spell it out: there are obvious parallels between the PS2's DVD drive and the PS3's Blue-ray drive.

So, given this historical precedent, does that mean that if I buy a PS3 I'll have shelves full of Blu-ray movies seven years from now? Not bloody likely. I have no way to confirm this, but I strongly suspect that if I had never purchased a PS2, I would have eventually purchased a stand-alone DVD player anyway, because DVDs are awesome. The fact that I didn't need to make any extra purchases to play them was just a bonus. They are a clearly superior movie format to VHS in several immediately evident ways. Blu-ray movies, on the other hand, are (if I squint and cross my eyes a little) a bit prettier. When I think of Blu-ray, I don't think of DVDs-- I think of Sony's other failed proprietary formats: Betamax and UMD.

The inevitable failure of the format is really a non-issue for me, though. Or at least, it would be, were it not for the fact that the PS3's inflated price-point can be laid squarely at the feet of the Blu-ray drive. Really though, I think I'm more bothered by the tacit endorsement of the format that a purchase would entail more than I am the inflated price tag. I'm not in this for a new movie format-- much like every other gaming console that I have ever purchased, I just want it to play games, and that's it. It does that well enough, but since it doesn't have any good ones yet, all of this discussion would seem to be moot. So why in hell am I considering buying one?

To answer that, we need to go back to March. The PS3 was originally announced as a global November launch back at E3, but when Sony realized that they would not have nearly enough units ready to meet demand, they announced that the European launch would be delayed until March. And then, to add insult to injury, they announced that the European PS3's would have a small but notable difference in their internal architecture: whereas the North American and Japanese units had supported backwards compatibility through a 98% compatible hardware solution, the European units would instead support it through emulation in order to cut manufacturing costs. However, this emulation, while theoretically improvable through future firmware updates (don't count on it), was drastically inferior to the dedicated chip, with only 72% of PS2 games being compatible, many of which still had issues ranging from "minor" to "noticeable". This change was restricted to Europe at the time, but it was clear that the days of hardware backwards compatibility support in North American PS3s were numbered.

Thanks to my sizable backlog, that change was a big deal for me. As I said, I bought a shit-ton of games for the PS1 and PS2, and I would like to be able to play them once my PS2 dies (again), and if I were to pick up a PS3, I'd like to be able to shelve my PS2 for good. I can't imagine that I'm alone in this. Why Sony would choose not to properly leverage the collective libraries of two of the most popular video game consoles of all time is beyond me. Regardless though, the decision had been made, and I knew that I would likely have to make a decision eventually between early adoption and a lack of backwards compatibility, and as you may have guessed, that time has come.

Things began on a much brighter note, though. Yesterday, on the Monday before E3, Sony announced that, effective immediately, the PS3 was finally getting a desperately needed $100 price drop, and that a new model was being phased in at the old price with a larger hard drive and a pack-in game. This was great news, and although I still had no intention of buying one any time soon, it was nice to know that, if I did, it would be at least $100 cheaper. However, later that afternoon the other shoe dropped, when Sony also quietly stated that the new model would introduce the software-based backwards compatibility, and that the hardware compatibility was being phased out of North American units. Crap.

So here I am. I don't want a PS3. If I were to buy one right now, I wouldn't use it, because there is literally not a single game on it that I would choose to spend money that I don't already own for the 360. And yet, chances are that I will buy one eventually. If it has even one exclusive game that I need, whether that game is Final Fantasy XIII or Resident Evil 5, I'll have to buy one. But both of those games are quite far off, and neither one is guaranteed to remain a PS3 exclusive. Then again, this is Sony that we're talking about, and there is established precedent on each of their last two systems that their software library will become an unstoppable juggernaut as the console ages. Noone can deny that they're on track to lose significant market share compared to their dominance of the previous generation, but they are still Sony, and no matter how negative public perception might be, it is the Playstation 3, successor to the Playstation 2, and people are going to buy it. But will I be one of them?

At this point, I just don't know. I find myself waffling either way between one moment and the next. I'm certainly not alone in the way that I feel, in that Wired's Chris Kohler thinks that the newly-reduced $500 model is the model to buy, echoing many of my thoughts. Also, since these announcements, the PS3 has shot up the Amazon sales rankings like a rocket. I really feel like I'm being forced to decide right now if I will ever purchase a Playstation 3. If I will, then I should buy it now, but if I don't and then decide later that I want one, I'll be kicking myself for years. Sony is forcing my hand, and whatever I ultimately decide to do, I hate them for it.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Force-ful Reply

Well, obviously this blog is dead. So, in the interests of generating content for my zero remaining readers, I'm going to share an e-mail exchange I had with Nathan this morning regarding my video game buying habits, since the production values for his reply were high enough that it seems a shame not to share it with the world. In all likelihood, it will sit here as the top post for the next several months.

First, I sent him a brief e-mail message entitled "I'm weak" (edited slightly here to make me look like less of an idiot):

"I first heard about Etrian Odyssey months ago, and at the time I decided, no Jordan, you're not buying it. But now people are saying nice things, and, well, I just sent myself a reminder to pick it up when I go in to buy Odin Sphere."

Everything that follows is his reply:


In the bright lights of the fighter, Luke loads a heavy case into the belly of the ship. Artoo sits on top of the X-wing, settling down into his cubbyhole. Yoda stands nearby on a log.

YODA: Luke! You must complete the games you're playing!

LUKE: I can't keep the screenshots out of my head. They're role playing games. I've got to buy them.

YODA: You must not go!

LUKE: But the game might sell out if I don't.

BEN'S VOICE: You don't know that.

Luke looks toward the voice in amazement. Ben has materialized as a real, slightly shimmering image near Yoda. The power of his presence stops Luke.

BEN: Even Yoda cannot see their fate.

LUKE: But I can buy them! I feel the cash in my wallet!

BEN: But you cannot control it. This is a dangerous time for you, when you will be tempted by the dark side of consumerism.

YODA: Yes, yes. To Obi-Wan you listen. Rogue Galaxy. Remember your failure with Rogue Galaxy!

LUKE: But I've learned so much since then. Master Yoda, I promise to return and finish what I've begun. You have my word.

BEN: It is you and your money the companies want. That is why your sense of completion is made to suffer.

LUKE: And that is why I have to go.

BEN: Luke, I don't want to lose you to the Emperor the way I lost Vader.

LUKE: You won't.

YODA: Stopped they must be. On this depends. Only a fully trained Jedi Knight with the Force as his ally will conquer Vader and his Emperor. If you end your training now, if you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.

BEN: Patience.

LUKE: And sacrifice Han and Leia?

YODA: If you honor what they fight for...yes!

OK the metaphor kind of breaks down near the end.

Nathan Scott

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Home Improvement

Well, I've obviously now joined the large list of blogs that never update. I just can't seem to find the time anymore, as the huge gap between this post and the last one shows quite well. I started a post about a month ago, but I never got around to finishing it. It may simply be that the video game industry has been so quiet during the typical post-holiday lull that I haven't had much to talk about. Or maybe it's because the pipe dream of writing about video games for a living has felt a little more distant and unattainable lately, and so I haven't felt compelled to put in any effort. Whatever the reason, the problem isn't going away, and I'm not going to bother lying and saying that I'll try to post more often from this point forward. I'll just content myself with a update schedule of "never" like most of my friends. It seems to work well enough for them.

So what has brought me out of my long slumber? The Game Developers Conference is this week, and yesterday it produced something that I almost no longer thought possible: good news about the Sony Playstation 3. The month of March began typically enough, with Sony generating yet more negative PR in its continuing mission to drive the Playstation brand into the ground. Kotaku had leaked a story about a rumoured upcoming GDC announcement, detailing a service called Playstation Home that would see a blending of two different stolen ideas: Nintendo's Miis and Microsoft's Achievements system. Sony, who had warned (read: threatened) Kotaku against publishing the story, responded by cutting all ties to Kotaku, uninviting them from Sony press events and demanding that their debug PS3 unit be returned. The internet at large soon caught wind of this, and within hours the huge public and industry backlash prompted Sony to reverse their decision. Still, the damage had been done. To quote Penny Arcade's Tycho: "Like some idiot alchemist they are able to transform good news into bad news, or turn gleaming triumph into wretched defeat."

The end result of all of this foolishness was that the original story was over-shadowed and largely forgotten (at least by me). However, today the promised announcement officially arrived, and it's far more than was previously rumoured. Rather than a stolen blend of Miis and Achievements, Playstation Home is more like an integration of Second Life into the PS3 platform. Essentially, Sony intends to create a large virtual world that users interact with, and their PS3 serves as a sort of personal living quarters, or "Home", within this world. It allows robust avatar creation (of a decidedly more realistic nature than Miis), social networking, environmental customization, media sharing, and in-world games (played at such places as the virtual arcade or virtual bowling alley). Players can interact with each other in the larger world, or join each other in one of their Homes and access that person's content, from their decorating to the movies they have on their console (displayed on an in-world television). Or they can just meet and talk, and then launch a multiplayer session of a retail PS3 game from their virtual home. It's a bit difficult to explain, really, but I think their GDC trailer does an excellent job, and I heartily recommend that everyone watch it.

As a further bit of good PS3 news, Sony recently settled their long legal battle with Immersion over the rumble functionality of the PS2 DualShock controller (Microsoft and Nintendo, who were a little less stubborn about the whole thing, settled similar suits for their respective consoles long ago), and has now entered into a working relationship with them. The PS3's current controller, the SIXAXIS (yes, that's the official spelling), has no rumble feature, and reports from current PS3 owners generally indicate that their gaming experiences are worse for it. Originally, Sony claimed that rumble functionality was not included was because there was no room for both it and tilt-sensing, but after a series of experts testified that this was absolutely not true, Sony changed their story and derisively called rumble a "last-gen" feature. Meanwhile, everyone who was not a Sony mouth-piece knew that the only reason that the Sixaxis (the official spelling can kiss my ass) lacked rumble was because Sony wasn't willing to play nice with Immersion. Well, now they are, and already they're beginning to back-pedal, indicating that they're open to the idea of rumbling Sixaxis controllers in the future. This is bad news for everyone that already owns a PS3, but since noone is buying the damn thing as it stands anyway, its good news for the majority of gamers.

So, does this mean that Sony is finally starting to recover from their train wreck of a console launch and beginning to turn things around? It certainly seems that way, although of course only time will tell. Just think how great this all would have seemed if they had launched the damn thing once it was actually ready, with all of this functionality out of the box. And all of this news comes just as I was beginning to become cautiously optimistic that I might not have to buy a PS3 at all (provided that Final Fantasy XIII made its was to the 360, of course). There's still plenty to hate, though, as there's no sign of a price cut coming any time in the near future, and future PS3 models will likely have gimped backwards compatibility (all European PS3 will come that way once the console launches there later this month), addressed through a cheaper software solution instead of the current hardware solution, which is a huge issue for me and my massive catalog of unplayed PS2 games. Until they get these problems sorted out, I'm still having plenty of fun with my Wii and 360.

[End post body]

Given that it has been so long since my previous update, I feel like I should also mention what I'm up to these days (besides "to my neck in work") before I go. It makes the whole post look less professional, but so does waiting two months between posts, so why worry about it? On the 360 front, I recently purchased Gears of War, which, for any of you not familiar with it, is generally considered to be the best game of last year, sweeping awards features left and right. It was definitely money well spent. Although the game doesn't really break any new ground, it brings it all together into an incredibly fun and amazing looking (especially on my new high-definition set) package, and the time Aiden and I have spent playing through the campaign mode in local co-operative play has been the most fun I've had gaming so far this year. I've also been spending a lot of time (and money) with the Wii's virtual console. If I ever get around to finishing the stalled post mentioned above, I'll speak at length about it. The Wii also introduced the Everybody Votes Channel recently, a service that allows Wii owners to do just what it says, and although it doesn't really do a whole lot for me, Vern seems to be quite enamored with it.

Speaking of Vern, everything is going great with us at the moment. I made it through our first Valentine's Day safely, and we're scheduled to do some traveling next month. We'll be heading to Toronto for a week and a half in April to visit her family. I'm a little nervous, since I've never been in a city that big before, and my closest previous experience (one trip to Montreal) convinced me that I'm not a city person, but hopefully I'll be able to ride the subway without clutching my legs to my chest and rocking back and forth, doing my best not to get robbed or shot. In more immediate travel news, I'll be driving to Moncton tomorrow night after work with Aiden and hanging out with John and Cheryl for a few days, which should be fun. I've burned two CDs worth (1.4 GB) of anime intro and ending mp3s for the trip, and I'm very pleased with the collection I've managed to put together over the last few weeks. Also, Vern has said that she might show up at work tomorrow with delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies for the trip, and the anticipation is such that if I receive no such delicious cookies then I may just cancel the whole thing altogether. :-P

Other than that, there's not a whole lot going on with me. I'm still super busy at work, fixing bugs in and adding functionality to my .NET base class libraries, and preparing to push our first .NET application out the door while starting the design work on our next one. The .NET mentor from AllStream that I'm currently working with leaves at the end of the month and heads back to Halifax, at which point I'll officially become the .NET mentor for everyone else in the section. We're all doomed. :-P

Well, it'll probably be quite some time again until my next post, so let me take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy Easter. Or not, if that's you bag (eyes a certain pair of identical twin atheists). To those of you hailing from parts of the world where its not bitterly cold right now: I hate you.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Shot of Christmas Cheer Chased by a Shot of Liquid Cheer

Generic well-wishing to all! The holidays have come and gone, and now it's back to the daily grind. And what better way to mark that return to work than by putting off said work to write a blog post? My vacation was rather packed full of activity, and although this left me with very little time to game (aside from playing the Christmas-day Wii Virtual Console release of Super Castlevania IV from start to finish), it has provided me with plenty of material for a post, from how I spent my first Christmas with Veronica to how I drunkenly rang in the new year. Before I get to that, though, allow me to tell you about my shiny new four-thousand dollar toy.

Christmas came early for me this year, as I bought myself a long-overdue new television. My behemoth of an existing big-screen was great in its day, but after almost a decade of regular use, it was beginning to show its age, and I'd been given to understand that it was almost criminal to have my XBox 360 hooked up to a standard-definition television. So, I went online and began researching television technologies in earnest. After several hours of reading over the course of a week, I decided on an LCoS display, and then began shopping around for a TV that fit my long and specific requirements list. I needed the dimensions to fit the cavity left by my previous television, and I needed a large and specific assortment of A/V ports for my various consoles and other electronics. I was beginning to despair that the television I wanted simply didn't exist, and then I found it. It was love at first sight. The 50" Sony SXRD (a Sony-specific implementation of LCoS) was the right size, it was the right technology, it had an 8000 hour lamp life, and it had almost all of the ports I wanted (I'd have preferred a second S-video port), spread over eight different input channels.

A few days later, it was sitting in my rec room. And although I was initially floored by how good it looked, I must admit that there were some issues, mostly as a result of my own ignorance. You see, despite all of my research, there was one important detail that I hadn't been aware of until I ran into the problem myself-- video game systems with low-resolution output look like ass when scaled up to fifty inches in a 1080p native resolution. I haven't had the courage (or the time) to try my PS2 yet, but I of course tried my Wii right away, and was incredibly disappointed when it actually looked worse on my new TV than it had on my old one. Where before there had been smooth edges, now everything was depressingly jagged and ugly, and no amount of setting tweaking on the television or the console was able to make it any better. My only hope was that a set of component cables and an accompanying switch from 480i to 480p would make things better, but after ordering them I found out that it would simply make the jagged edges ever crisper, and having now made the switch I can confidently state that I have noticed no change whatsoever, for better or for worse.

Mere months ago, when it was announced that the Wii would only output at a maximum resolution of 480p, I distinctly recall not caring in the slightest-- now it suddenly seemed a very consequential and maddening decision. Similarly, all of those people whom I had heard bitch about how awful the Wii looks suddenly seemed less like raving internet trolls. I was even considering taking the television back, when Nathan came over and talked me back from the cliff edge without even intending to. You see, he didn't think that the Wii looked any worse than it had on my old television, and instead thought that it simply looked different. I lamented that everything look jagged and ugly now, to which he simply replied "yes, and before everything looked blurry."

And just like, I suddenly felt much better. I admit that I still have trouble seeing it as anything but worse, but I am getting used to it. If I spend any time in careful examination of the graphics I get depressed again, but I quickly forget all about it once I start actually playing any games, and I can foresee a point in time where I cease to notice it altogether. I suspect I wouldn't even have a problem with it if I hadn't already become accustomed to how it looked on my old TV. I'm still worried about my PS2, though-- I'm much more used to how it looks on a SD CRT.

It's not all bad news, though. Other than the Wii's (and presumably, the PS2's) "jaggies", the new TV looks awesome, and I have only nice things to say about it otherwise. The picture looks amazing, the viewing angle is great, it has tons of convenient settings and options, and, most importantly, I have everything hooked up to it at once without anymore annoying manual cable switching or the need to buy a switch. Each device has its own labeled input channel now, too-- I can just navigate to the "XBox 360" channel instead of having to remember that it's on Video 2.

Speaking of the 360, it easily looks ten times better than it used to, which makes me wish that I owned more than one game for the damn thing (I'll be finished Oblivion any day now, I swear), and just makes me more depressed that the Wii, which I own six games for, looks like crap (not to mention the dozens of PS2 and Gamecube games that I have yet to play through). The 360's not the only thing that looks good, though, as I've also noticed a significant improvement in how my PC looks on the new television. I used to pipe my PC's display over to my old big-screen on my video card's S-video out when I was watching shows that I'd downloaded, and I had no idea that an S-video connection could look this good. The TV also has a VGA in, so if I feel particularly enterprising some day in the near future then I may drag my PC across the room and see how well the SXRD works as a monitor.

Which reminds me that I haven't really mentioned how well it works as a television. For the standard definition stations that we all know and love, it's set to preserve the aspect ratio, and although I therefore lost a bit of size in the switch to a widescreen set, they're still plenty large. Otherwise, they look fine, although perhaps a bit grainier thanks to the crisper picture exposing the flaws. Theoretically, I wouldn't have much more to say about this, since we don't have digital cable, but, well, it seems that noone told Rogers that. You see, the moment I connected the new set, it began searching for digital channels, and it found a couple hundred that aren't supposed to be there. We don't have a digital box, so accessing them is a bit obnoxious (some channels are described by as many as four digits after the decimal place), but they're there in all of their HD glory, and they look amazing. The TV was supposed to come with a free year of digital cable, but we hadn't contacted Rogers to get it hooked up yet, and we weren't even sure if we were going to, for fear about what impact in might have on our, umm... *cough* current cable setup. So now I don't know if I should contact them and get a box, or if I should sit quietly and enjoy my free cable as it is. Oh well-- deciding how best to handle your free cable's not a bad problem to have. ;-)

My new TV took up much of my free time over the holiday break, but that's not really saying a whole lot, since I didn't have all that much free time to speak of in the first place. Many of my friends were home (that is to say, in Fredericton) for Christmas, and between gatherings with them and spending time with Veronica, my social calendar was booked pretty solid. It was nice to see everyone again, and it all went by so fast. My annual all-night holiday gathering in particular was a lot of fun, and, even at nineteen hours (a few hours shorter than usual), didn't seem nearly long enough. We didn't even get around to playing eight-player system-linked Mario Kart on two big screens (my old one and my new one) as I had originally planned!

Believe it or not, I actually did manage to find time amidst all of this socializing to celebrate Christmas itself. In a fairly last-minute decision, Vern and I decided that we would spend Christmas Eve with her family, and Christmas with mine. This worked out fairly well, as Christmas Eve is the day that her family traditionally puts more emphasis on. However, I am a creature of habit, so any break from tradition is a at least a little painful for me (I gather that I was missed at the first of my two usual Christmas Eve stops), and the prospect of a fancy four-course vegetarian meal didn't exactly sweeten the deal. For anyone who's not aware, my palette is not exactly what you would call "refined" (although Veronica is working on it-- I had Indian food for the first time last month!), nor are my table manners, and I was terrified that I'd embarrass myself, or, even worse, insult Vern's mother by looking visibly disgusted with the dinner she'd worked so hard on.

My worries were largely unfounded, though, as the evening actually went rather well. I managed to cobble together some fairly nice formal wear, I was able to eat all of the food, and, even though I still think one fork per meal is enough for anyone, I was also able to get through the meal with only a couple of faux pas (even with Vern watching me eagle-eyed and announcing any mistakes to the table... *grumble*). None of the food was anything that I would likely have chosen to eat on my own, but the second course, Borscht, wasn't half bad, and the dumplings in it were quite tasty-- if the beet/dill broth had been a little less strong-tasting then I think I may have liked it quite a bit. After dinner, everyone opened their presents (those crazy Europeans :-P), and then I headed out to meet my parents while Veronica and her family prepared for evening mass.

The next day, everyone at my house got up at roughly nine o'clock, at which point we had some breakfast, then went upstairs to open our presents. I received a media remote and a wireless adapter for my 360, both of which I wanted, and neither of which I was willing to buy myself, since they're both unreasonably priced (the adapter costs $130 fucking dollars for functionality that's available out of the box with the Wii-- that's highway robbery). I spent the rest of the morning checking out the Wii's Christmas-day offerings, most of which I bought (ToeJam & Earl, Super Castlevania IV, Street Fighter II, and Super Mario Bros.), which officially put me over the $50 mark in Virtual Console purchases to date. Then, in the afternoon, I headed to town to pick up Vern, and the two of us ate a pleasant and rather uneventful Christmas dinner with my dad's side of the family at my grandfather's house (now also my aunt and uncle's house). After that, we went back to my place and finished watching the first season of Arrested Development on DVD (my second time through, but Veronica's first).

The week after Christmas was just as crowded as the week before Christmas, and before I knew it, it was time to ring in the new year. In years past, my friends and I usually attended my friend Ricmond's New Year's party, but he lives in Vancouver now, so Veronica threw a party in his stead. She really pulled out all of the stops, with lots of decorations, lots of alcohol, and enough food to feed an army. I gather that she spent most of that day (and the previous day?) cooking, so there was lots to choose from. I'd be hard-pressed to provide a complete list, but the selection included cheese and chocolate fondues; warm and cold shrimp; three kinds of chips; bread cubes; five kinds of crackers and two kinds of cheese; a fruit and vegetable plate (strawberries and cherry tomatoes FTW!); some kind of mushroom/beef (I think) mini-quiches; and, my favorite item, delicious mini-kabobs consisting of bacon, chicken, and pineapple, with home-made sweet and sour sauce for dipping (someone please tell her that normal people don't make their own dipping sauces).

I had brought several party games at Vern's request, but they weren't needed, and everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time socializing without them. Also, they had me for entertainment. You see, Vern has stated for some time her intent to get me drunk at some point, and New Year's Eve provided the perfect opportunity. For anyone who might be unaware, this is notable, because I, in general, do not drink. I had certainly never been drunk before, and Veronica wanted me to know what it was like. So, I pretty much just drank whatever she handed to me, and it seemed to amuse Travis to no end that whenever he asked me what I was drinking, I told him that I had no idea and pointed him in Vern's direction.

Since then, though, I've gone to the trouble of finding out exactly what I had, so, for what's its worth, here's an itemized list of what I drank that evening, roughly in order:
-2 Strawberry Daquiris
-1 White Russian
-1 Pina Colada
-1 Screwdriver
-1 glass of Ice Wine
-1 shot of Triple Sec
-3 shots of Whiskey
-1 shot of Rum
-1 shot of Ouzo, chased by a second shot of Rum

I really don't have much of a frame of reference, but that seems an impressive enough list that I can at least state with some confidence that I'm not a cheap drunk. I've always suspected that I would be able to hold my liquor quite well, although the abundance of food probably helped in that regard. And even with all of the above, I'm not sure that I got all that drunk-- it was well into the evening before Veronica could get me to admit that I was anything more than a little tipsy. I certainly didn't experience any of the negative consequences that are generally associated with becoming completely shit-faced, as I didn't feel ill or throw up, I had no hangover, and I remember the entire evening (and the following morning) perfectly well.

As for my behaviour, I didn't feel all that out of control, which had always been one of my chief concerns about inebriation, and the biggest reason that I had never partaken of the devil's brew in the past (besides simply not seeing the point). I was simply a bit louder, a bit more sociable, a bit less tactful, and a lot less shy. For instance, shortly before midnight, I started playing Karaoke Revolution all by myself, and sang particularly poorly (not to mention loudly). Also, everything seemed about ten times as funny as usual, and at one point I broke out in uncontrollable laughter for almost a full minute for absolutely no reason, which actually felt really, really good-- I'm not sure that I've ever laughed in quite so boisterous a fashion before. I found this particularly odd, since I had always thought that I would be a weepy drunk. Perhaps I would be normally, but I'm just in a good mood these days. In any case, nothing catastrophic happened, and it was a vaguely enjoyable and relaxing experience, so, although I don't intend to make a habit of it, I could see myself getting drunk again in the future on, say, an annual basis.

So, that was how my holiday vacation went. I hope that everyone had a merry Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Bah-humbug, and I hope that everyone had a happy and safe time celebrating an arbitrary division between one length of time and another similar length of time. I wish also like to take this opportunity to wish all of my friends good luck and safe travels as they return to their respective corners of the globe. Whether you're basking in the Vancouver sun, languishing in the German rain, or regretting that you opted out of your intermediate Japanese classes (*shakes jealous fist*), know that I'll still be here waiting for you when you all get tired of visiting this "rest of the world" that I've heard so much about. I'll keep a Wii-mote ready for you.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Rumours of my Death have been Greatly Exaggerated

Call off the search! I'm still alive! Well, if you can call what I do "living", at any rate. Yes, this has been a break between posts of unprecedented length (three weeks!), and I wish that I had something meatier to offer after such a delay, but alas, this is not the case. I've been very busy both at and away from work as of late (incidentally, I'm cautiously optimistic that I might be promoted to an introductory database administration position in the new year), with a .NET push being responsible for the earlier and a combination of trying to finish an involved ASL scenario before Christmas, trying to finish Ultimate Alliance before Stefan moves to Japan, and trying to spend as much time as possible with Veronica (for anyone who's not yet heard, we're an item now) responsible for the latter.

With all of that, I've just simply not had time to write any posts of my typical length, although I have actually had a few suitable topics for once after spending some quality time with Rayman and his titular Raving Rabbids, losing track of time while playing SNES SimCity on my Wii, having my ass handed to me by my 6-year-old cousin in Wii Sports, and watching helplessly as my life was destroyed utterly by Bookworm Adventures Deluxe. I even had post titles for some of them, which is the point after which my posts typically write themselves. Unfortunately, they need a few free hours to do that, and those hours are simply not there. In the meantime, I'd like to leave you with a picture of what I found on my office chair when I got in to work this morning, but I don't have a digital camera. In any case, I assure you that my new obsessive compulsive action figure is hilarious. He comes with his own hypoallergenic moist towelette! I have yet to figure out who left it, but I have my suspicions...

Update: *slaps forehead* I forgot that the Internet exists again. Here's a picture that I found on-line:

Friday, November 24, 2006

The First Wiik

I have my Wii. I've now spent two solid evenings using it, and, although I want to spend a lot more time with it before offering a final opinion, I'm ready to share my initial impressions. But first, a story.

Allow me to share with you the tale of my Wii purchasing adventure. The EB in the mall opened its doors Sunday at noon, and I showed up with Aiden and Vern in tow at around 11:15AM. There was a pretty sizable line outside EB at that point, but I was told that people with preorders could file in first, so we went and killed forty minutes in the arcade (which is itself an interesting story that I'll save for another day), passing another line outside Toys R Us on the way (in which every fourth person or so was playing a DS). When we got back to EB, there was a small separate preorder line extending in the other direction from the door, so we settled in and waited for my turn. The wait wasn't very long, and roughly ten minutes later I was distributing five bags of swag (including a reluctantly accepted complementary copy of Geist-- man, they can't even give these things away) to Aiden (whom I gave Geist to for his trouble) and Vern (who got nothing for her trouble :-P). Thanks goodness I had the extra arms to help carry everything. My EB launch experience had been great-- I was ready to head home with my Wii, and it was only five after twelve.

So, I got out my wallet and prepared to pay the clerk $1000. *blinks* Wait, $1000!? As this information tried to process, I froze and blinked a couple of times, and then told the clerk (who was fairly new) that the total seemed quite a bit higher than my previous estimates, especially considering that I already had paid $250 for preorders on the console and various games and accessories. He gave the screen a perfunctory glance and assured me that everything added up, and, since there was a fifty-strong long behind me, I decided to drop it and leave, hoping that I had made a mistake. My next stop was Wal-mart, where I hoped to snag a copy of Rayman (which I hadn't preordered). I knew that the line wait there would be considerably longer, so I left Aiden and Vern in my car with my shiny new toy.

As I walked to Wal-mart, I saw yet another long line (and this one was notably messier, with pop bottles and pizza boxes strewn about), although this one just confused me, since the store was already open and sold out of Wiis. I bypassed this line, walked straight to the very crowded electronics department, and managed to snag one of three remaining copies of Rayman. As I queued up to pay for it, I spoke at length to those around me about the Wii and its launch. Apparently most of them had camped out, or at least shown up very early that morning, so I definitely lost the one-upsmanship contest when I said that I just showed up at noon and picked up my preordered Wii (or won it, depending on how you look at it). Their accounts of these lines, and my own experience in this line, was quite consistent with what I later read on-line, and what I fully expected: the Wii lines were much nicer than the PS3 lines in most respects, as summarized amusingly here. They told me that all of the Wiis in the mall had sold out (which was generally the case continent-wide), and a number of them were quite jealous of my full set of four remotes and nunchaku, as apparently nunchaku were in short supply (which was apparently a wide-spread problem). All told, it was a nice chat, and a rare opportunity to have a pleasant conversation and share a bit of camaraderie with a un-obnoxious group of fellow hardcore gamers.

After roughly half an hour in Wal-mart, I left with Rayman in hand, and got back to my car, where Veronica, who had spent the intervening time poring over my receipt, informed me that EB had charged me twice for everything save the console itself. Well that explained a lot. So, I passed her Rayman, took the receipt, and headed back into the mall for what I hoped would be the final time that day. The actual process of getting my money back was fairly quick and painless, as they were going to some effort to make sure that I left happy. I told the manager my problem and was rushed straight to the front of the still very long line, where he examined my receipt while reprimanding the new guy who had rung me through originally. Apparently he had pressed the function key that automatically charges me full price for all of my preorders, but then made the mistake of manually scanning everything again after that. I'm a bit worried that others may have been similarly overcharged without noticing it, but that's not my problem, I guess. *shrug* Five minutes and several apologies later, I left the store $500 richer and headed home to get my launch party started.

My very first thought on removing the console from the box is likely one that most new Wii owners had-- my goodness is that thing small. At the width and thickness of three stacked DVD cases (but an extra inch or two longer), it looks and feels like a slightly oversized disc drive, which is essentially what it is, really. Its size is a good match for the Wii-mote, which is itself a bit small for my taste-- it reminds me of the Game Boy Colour, which was too small for my hands. This isn't a problem for the motion-sensing or trigger buttons, but a few of the face buttons and the D-pad are hard for my thumb to manipulate. Also, I'm going to have to school myself (and my friends) to always wear the wrist strap, because when people play without it I'm seeing scattered reports of, at best, broken Wii-motes, and, at worst, broken laptops and televisions.

The physical setup of the hardware was relatively painless, although I did have to move things around a bit to accommodate the sensor bar and the power brick. Getting three remotes, three nunchaku, and one classic controller out of typically evil plastic accessory packaging was a bit of a nuisance, but it helped me stall for time and wait for Stefan and Nathan to arrive before the big moment (powering it on for the first time). That anti-climactic ritual finished (I had the TV on the wrong input channel, so it kind of killed the moment), I began to use the Wii for the first time and poke around the menus. The pointing functionality is incredibly awkward at first, as it is clear that you're pointing at the bar and not at the television itself, but it began to feel natural remarkably quickly, and it ceased to bother me after about five minutes. It helps very much to think of it as a mouse instead of a pointer-- the movement of the on-screen cursor corresponds quite nicely to the movement of your remote with respect to its current position, but if you try and sight along the length of it you'll be sorely disappointed.

That being said, one problem that I think may be largely specific to my setup is that players seated on the chairs not directly in front of the television have wobbly, erratic cursors. Tweaking the sensitivity in the system menu helped this quite a bit, but the players on the fringes still get fairly regular shaking and flickering. The sensor bar evidently gets finicky at wide, low angles, as the problem goes away if those fringe players either raise their remote high or move in front of the television. If my TV weren't so high, this problem would go away, and even as is, I could likely fix it by moving the sensor bar below the television. However, my setup doesn't lend itself to that, so I guess I'll have to make do. I don't think it's been interfering with gameplay at all, so it's not a huge problem-- just annoying.

After the quick physical setup, getting my Wii online proved to be quite a challenge. It found my wireless router easily enough, but when I tried the automatic setup it couldn't seem to connect. Manually walking through the setup process solved the problem, but it was still a nuisance. Then, once I was connected, it immediately began looking for a firmware update, but the download crawled, and usually made very little progress before the connection was dropped. At first, I assumed that Nintendo's servers were simply getting hit hard, but subsequent efforts made it increasingly clear that something was amiss.

An exhaustive search for answers online (the support URL we were directed to wasn't valid at time, although it is now, and it's maddeningly informative and convenient) revealed an official recommendation that I switch my router to channel 1 or 11. This fixed everything immediately, and from that point forward both firmware updates went smoothly. However, I did encounter a problem after the second firmware update when trying to setup WiiConnect24 that is supposedly symptomatic of a bricked system. Fortunately, it worked fine on my second attempt, and I've had no such problems since, which makes me wonder if Nintendo support is jumping the gun with its hardware replacement recommendation for this particular error.

With all of that ugliness out of the way, it was time to get our Wii on. The very first thing we did was have everyone create their own personal avatars, called "Mii"s, which was fun, simple, and a nice introduction to the pointing interface. That done, it was time to pop in our first game. Even just the act of inserting a game into the system was a pleasure-- I love that disc slot. It takes either Wii or GCN disks at any height, and loads smoothly-- I wonder how I ever got by with crappy trays. I thought at first that it took discs on either facing, which amazed me, but a bit of testing quickly proved that this was not in fact the case.

One mildly amusing problem resulting from this is that there are many reports online of people with Wiis that read discs properly only one half of the time. This is of course roughly how often the disc would be read correctly if you weren't aware that the label had to face in a specific direction. Even more amusing is when people go on to say that the problem goes away when the Wii is laid flat. Obviously, this is because there's only one intuitive orientation for inserting discs into a horizontal slot.

Our first game was Wii Sports, the game that came bundled with the system. I'm mildly annoyed that it just has a cardboard sleeve instead of a full case, although there are alternatives that I may take advantage of if I can find someone who will ship to Canada. After it was inserted, it spun up pretty quickly, and then we were treated to a cute little musical intro and splash screen that's actually embedded in the OS's Disc Channel. This is a really neat feature, and appears to be used by all Wii games. I then clicked the play button, and the game started. I must say, Wii Sports was pretty fun, and it definitely left the best taste in my mouth of anything I've played on the Wii thus far. My favorites games in the package were Tennis and Golf, but they were all fairly enjoyable, save Boxing, which felt utterly broken to me, although Aiden and Stefan seemed to like it quite a bit. I really wish we had spent more time with Wii Sports than we did.

One item that I had almost forgotten quickly made its presence known once we started playing: the small speaker embedded in each Wii-mote. I absolutely adore those speakers. A lot of people online seem to hate them, and complain about the sound quality, but I think they sound just fine. I found them to be immersive, as opposed to distracting, and hearing things like the sound of the ball hitting your racquet come from the remote is just really neat. It feels like the natural evolution of force feedback, and I hope it becomes standard in subsequent console generations.

After Wii Sports, I took a look at the Wii Shop Channel. It felt pretty slick, but the initial offering was pretty limited, and the loading times while navigating the menus seemed excessive. On the other hand, the actual download times were satisfying quick, and featured a fun little animation of Mario collecting coins that I'm sure will get old pretty quickly. My first and only purchase that first night was the original Zelda for the NES, despite loud protests from Vern and Nathan (I have the game on a free Gamecube disc I got from Nintendo that will play in my Wii). I didn't play it for long, but it seemed like a faithful port. One nifty feature is that the Virtual Console uses save states. Whenever you load up a game, you'll be right where you were the last time you quit-- I now finally have something that supports gaming in short bursts.

Once everyone got tired of watching me throw my money away, we moved on to the game that we spent the majority our time playing, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz. Monkey Ball has 50 mini-games, for 2-4 players, but they're all over the map, both in terms of play mechanics and quality. It's like the developers just threw whatever crazy ideas they could at this controller, and put them all in the game, regardless of what actually worked well. Aside from the few just outright broken mini-games, it seemed like, for most of the games, one or two people "got it" instantly, while the remaining players just didn't feel in control using whatever the latest crazy control mechanics were. Which means that, for any given game, there was usually at least one or two frustrated people, which is far from ideal. This would likely improve over time with repeated play (especially since I now know which mini-games to avoid altogether), and everyone still had fun in general, but it is definitely an issue.

There were a few stand-out mini-games that everyone liked, though, and, oddly enough, the FPS game (Monkey Wars) makes a good argument for FPSs on the Wii in general, and it controlled very well. Red Steel was the game that was intended to make that argument, but EB didn't have it in yet on launch day, and, although I could have picked up a copy later at Wal-mart, the early reviews had been poor enough that I decided to pass altogether. Apparently, it has pretty good FPS controls wrapped in a glitchy, ugly game with a weak story. I might rent it to see if I agree with the critics (word of mouth is treating it much better than they are), but I suspect that I'll wait until Metroid Prime 3 to really get my FPS on.

As far as actual physical activity goes, I felt pretty tired by the day's end, although I was definitely playing like a toolbox, and we played for roughly ten hours. At one point, during Monkey Ball's Hammer Toss mini-game, I was swinging the remote so vigorously that I smacked myself in the right temple pretty solidly. Fortunately, the controller was unharmed. The next day, my arms felt like dead weights, and they continued to hurt for the next several days after that, so I think I'm going to keep away from a couple of Monkey Ball's more demanding minigames for a while.

Fast forward to Tuesday, and my second extended Wii multiplayer session. This time the game was Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, the third game in a series that my friends and I have enjoyed in the past. As a mainstream cross-platform Wii release, I knew it could be an important indicator of things to come, and I was anxious to see if they had developed a Wii game or shoe-horned motion controls into a 360 game. I would have to wait to find out, though, because when I turned the console on I discovered that the TurboGrafx-16 had just joined the Virtual Console, with two titles available: Bonk and Bomberman '93.

I immediately downloaded Bonk, because I'd never played it before and had always wanted to. For those of you not aware, Bonk was to the TG-16 what Mario and Sonic were to the SNES and Genesis respectively, although not quite as popular. He was a caveman who's primary means of attack was bashing enemies with his huge head. I only played the game for about five minutes, since everyone else was waiting to get their Marvel on, but it seemed fun enough, I guess. I may never play it again, but it was worth the $6 just to see what I'd been missing all those years ago. That sound you hear is Nathan grinding his teeth. :-)

The real star of the night, though, was the other TurboGrafx-16 download, Bomberman '93. I've probably played at least half a dozen Bomberman games over the years, with more bells and whistles tacked onto each successive one, but this game makes it clear that it's the same great core gameplay that carries that series, because even with every advance of the last decade stripped away, that game is still hella fun for a group of five (!) friends to play. That's right, you read that correctly-- Bomberman '93 supports five-player local simultaneous multiplayer. I have yet to try it out, but I think the fifth player has to use a GCN controller. The game has already been more than worth the $6 price tag, and I expect I'll get a lot more mileage out of it yet. They just don't make new games like this anymore.

After an epic ten-round match of Bomberman (five wins for me, four wins for Nathan, and one draw, I think), we finally started playing the game that we had gathered to play. My first impression was generally favorable, as the game walked us through the gestures we needed to perform to trigger various actions, and it all seemed to work fairly well. This impression held through the first few areas, but my mood began to sour as the evening went on and a few design and control issues became apparent (I'm beginning to sense a pattern here). Aside from a poorly-designed character management menu, which isn't really pertinent to an evaluation of the Wii, there were a couple of annoying problems involving the motion sensing. The nunchaku is used to control the game's camera (tilt it right to rotate it clockwise, or tilt it left to rotate it counter-clockwise) and to operate doors and switches (shake or jerk it). This is actually simple and intuitive, and I really like it, but noone else seemed to share that opinion, because of a key problem-- gamers are lazy.

You see, my friends evidently have this distressing habit of letting their hands just kind of hang limp while they're playing, or setting their controllers down altogether. As you might imagine, this becomes a problem when a game cares about the orientation or movement of your controller. I think I generally always hold my controllers straight, so it's not a problem for me, but when I'm playing cooperatively with three other people for whom it is a problem, it becomes my problem. So, every minute or two, the camera would begin to swing wildly, and I'd have to ask who was holding their nunchaku sideways. Less frequently, a door would be opened or a save point would be activated by mistake as someone put down or picked up their controller, giving a quick shock to the accelerometer.

These are just minor annoyances though, when compared with the biggest problem: every now and then, for roughly five seconds or so, the motion sensing just seemed to stop working. I don't know if this is the game's fault (a glitch) or the Wii's fault, or maybe even some nuance of the control scheme that we're missing, but it makes the game much harder when you suddenly can't attack. I can't find any accounts of similar problems online, so it almost makes me think that the problem is specific to us, either because of user error or a problem with my hardware or setup. That aside, the game actually handles a complex set of gestures better than the other Wii games I've played thus far, but part of me wonders if there's a need for the gesture set to be that complex in the first place.

The Wii's motion sensors work well when they're tasked with something simple, but developers seem like they're trying make it do too much. If the controller is assigned to a single function, like most of the Wii Sports games (except Boxing, which is the one that feels broken for that very reason), it feels pretty good, but neither of the other games that I've played stop there. They want it to do one thing when it's jerked up, another when it's jerked down, a third when it's swung side to side, and a fourth when it's rotated sideways and shoved up your ass. The fact is that the recognition technology just isn't sophisticated enough (or, to be more accurate, humans aren't accurate and consistant enough) to sense the nuances required for this level of detail to work well, and hopefully games will begin to get better as developers realize this.

I've experienced a broad range of emotions relating to my new Wii, with most of them over the course of that first day alone. I started launch day out eager and expectant, impatient to get it home and turn it on. Once I began setting it up and getting a feel for it, I started to get worried. However, once I started playing Wii Sports, I started to feel better, and by the time we'd played four of the five minigames, I was completely sold on the system. From that point forward, however, from Wii Sports Boxing through Monkey Ball's mini-game marathon, I became increasingly jaded and frustrated as the evening wore on. That being said, I've heard other people complain about Monkey Ball specifically being wonky until you filter out the problem minigames, and the console's fun factor is definitely high when playing in a group. This is definitely the best out-of-the-box launch day experience that I've ever had with a console.

There is one respect in which the Wii has definitely succeeded. I've heard people around the office, where nary a word on the subject of video games is usually heard, talk about the Wii on several different occasions. Even one of the secretaries was talking about Wii Tennis. Everyone who I've head talk about it has touched part of the Wii Sports package and been left with a favourable impression. From what I can see, Nintendo has definitely hit their mark in terms of accessibility and broad appeal. I intend to plop my parents down in front of the thing at some point just to see how well they've succeeded in this, but, to be perfectly honest, I'm not expecting much success, given that they both still can't operate a normal television remote properly. Right now, though, it's the appeal to the core gamer that concerns me more.

At this point, I'm still not sure where I stand on the Wii. It's a good value for its price, but I'm definitely not as in love with it as I thought I'd be right now. I think I need to give it more time before arriving at any firm conclusions. As far as functionality goes, the Coles Notes summary so far would be this: pointing and retro gaming FTW, and motion sensing FTL (although I feel like I might warm to it once I get used it). When everything comes together well, the controller really does make for a more immersive experience, but so far this seems to be the exception rather than the rule. If developers build their games from the ground up with the Wii's capabilities and limitations in mind (which may happen, since Wii development is cheap and the installed base is off to a good start), I really think this console could do great things, and I think that it will ultimately succeed or fail depending upon whether or not that happens.

Note that I still have yet to play Rayman, Twilight Princess, and Trauma Centre, which are generally agreed to be the three best launch games (and all of which I own), so I may have nicer things to say in a couple of weeks. If not, there may still be some hope, as Tycho claims that the best Wii games are the ones that weren't ready at launch (Mario, Metroid, and Warioware). I guess I'll just cross my fingers and hope for the best. For the moment, though, all of my criticisms aside, I'm still playing the Wii and having fun, and maybe in the end that's all you should take away from this bloated rambling post.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Long Time No Wii

Sorry for the long dry spell between posts-- I've been pretty busy as of late, and I haven't had much to write about besides posts of the usual "Yay Wii, Boo PS3!" variety. Which is what this is, incidentally, as this upcoming weekend is the one that I've had marked on my calendar for months: the PS3/Wii launch weekend. Wii enthusiasm and PS3 opportunism have both been building to a fevered pitch, and it's all now coming to a head. After months of argument and speculation about both consoles, gamers will finally be able to get them in their hands and decide for themselves. Although if they want to get their hands on a PS3, they'd better break open their piggy banks and head over to EBay. Zing!

This morning was the PS3 launch, which has been an unequivocal disaster, although that's hardly news. Inexcusably low launch totals have been repeatedly slashed over the last year, and, although there's been no official word yet, independent estimates put the final North American number at somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000. These numbers have prompted global re-sale fleecing, with the large majority of purchasers intending to resell their PS3 at inflated prices. Three days before launch, gamers could find Japanese PS3s (the disastrous Japanese launch was last weekend) for sale in New York's Chinatown for ~$1000 each. Lines have been building for up to a week in some instances, as reports came in from across the continent of gamers (and anyone looking to make a quick buck on EBay) camping out in the cold outside their local electronics retailers with tents and sleeping bags. Surveys and interviews with the members of those lines revealed a common theme in every instance-- only a very small percentage intend to keep their PS3s. In fact, in some instances literally noone could be found who was planning to keep their system. Easy money is never as easy as it seems though, as these people soon found out.

The mood was generally pleasant among those who lined up days in advance, given the novelty of the situation and the likelihood that they would receive a console, but as midnight last night approached, the situation in many locations began to get ugly. Where before there were only a handful of hardcore line-sitters, now there were mobs of people, growing in both size and anger by the minute, fighting for places in line and knowing full well that there were more people than PS3s. In many of the more crowded locations, whenever there was a disruption (like traffic or people cutting in line) or an attempt by officials to relocate one of the lines, everyone would suddenly surge forward, shoving and jostling for position in a dark game of musical chairs. The night was marked by scattered reports of violence, including a shooting, an armed robbery, and a small riot. I found this account the most disturbing though, perhaps simply because it felt a little more personal. So, suffice it to say, the PS3 launch was not pretty, and really brought out the worst in people. Had Sony released the damn thing six months from now when they had actual units to sell, as common sense would have dictated, I suspect things would have gone a lot more smoothly. It all makes sense, though, once you remember that Sony hates you.

Meanwhile, the Wii launches this Sunday with what is rumoured to be five times as many consoles available. I already have mine preordered, and EB assured me that they received enough to honour their preorders, so the pressure's off. I was advised to show up at 2PM to avoid the rush when they open at noon, but it's just doesn't feel like a console launch without at least a little waiting in the cold, so I'll probably show up at around 11AM. In addition to the console itself, I've preordered lots of games and accessories, I'll have a full set of four controllers and nunchaku waiting for me (plus one classic controller), as well as copies of Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, and Wii Sports (strangely, EB hadn't yet received their shipments of Trauma Centre: Second Opinion or Red Steel as of last night). Once I've collected all of that, I'll cart it all home and spend the rest of the day putting my new console through the motions. ;-)

The news isn't all good, though. Yesterday, Nintendo announced that their much-touted yet little-appreciated online functionality wouldn't be up and running for launch day. I mean, yes, the weather and news channels are silly, but I still planned to sit down and play with them a bit after hooking the thing up. Now I'll have to wait until December and January respectively. Also, although they haven't specified when precisely the browser will be available, it won't be day one, and they put the timeframe in terms of weeks. Again, I don't know how useful that browser would be, but I was looking forward to giving it a workout. Finally, although the virtual console launch lineup really doesn't look that bad, the Japanese lineup looks much nicer, and it turns out that N64 games won't rumble (which was one of the N64's most notable features). Oh well-- with all of the games I'm buying, I'm sure that I'll have more Wii stuff than I will time to enjoy it anyway.

As far as the games go for both new consoles, the early reviews indicate that the PS3's launch lineup is underwhelming, and that the Wii's launch lineup is a generally positive mixed bag with some specific bright spots. The PS3 launch titles are mostly cross-platform releases (some of which are apparently better on the 360), and the few that aren't generally suck. The only bright spot is Resistance: Fall of Man, which is easily the best of the bunch. Meanwhile, people seem divided on the Wii's pack-in, Wii Sports, although general consensus seems to be that the overall package is worthwhile, and, more specifically, that bowling rocks and boxing sucks. Other than that, Trauma Centre and Super Monkey Ball are both apparently good arguments for what the Wii is trying to do, while Excite Truck and a few other launch titles (generally the non-Ubisoft third-party titles with tacked-on Wii controls) fall a bit short. Also, no reviews have hit yet, but buzz is that Rayman: Raving Rabbids may be the best of the bunch, and I'm going to try and pick up a copy, although I don't have it preordered. And, of course, everyone loves Twilight Princess.

So, in summary: Yay Wii, Boo PS3! I plan to spend a lot of quality time with my new Wii this coming week, and I'll try and post my impressions next Friday. Until then.