Sunday, November 10, 2013

My Love/Hate Relationship with Spelunky

Of all the games that have made me ragequit, Spelunky is the only one that I'll giddily return to five minutes later for "just one more round". I cannot stress how amazing of a complement this is.

Spelunky is a platformer where you explore a series of randomly-generated caves trying to loot as much treasure as possible while dodging traps, enemies, and chain reactions of death caused by your own stupidity. Please take note, Spelunky is a very hard game, and you'll probably die hundreds if not thousands of times before you finally beat the game. That said, even with the win condition so far out of reach, you can still get a hefty sense of enjoyment from just getting that little bit further in the caves, or grabbing a little more gold than last time, or whatever goal of self-improvement you can muster up.

But for as many times as I've had a "good run" that I've felt proud of, I've had probably twenty times as many runs where I wanted to punch my ramen broth-stained monitor in the face. From giant frogs to angry cavemen to shotgun-wielding shopkeepers, there are tons of ways to die, and death is often instantaneous. And that's probably why Spelunky is so rage-inducing: Death can happen at any moment, in the blink of an eye, for reasons you couldn't possibly have anticipated. For contrast, consider another super-hard randomly-generated game like The Binding of Isaac. Seemingly everything is out to kill you in every room you enter, and you've got a limited amount of health you have to sustain throughout the entire game, but out of your cache of three or so hearts, getting hit by an enemy knocks either half a heart or, at most, a single whole heart off of your supply. You have a second of recovery time, then you're back up and running from danger again. In Spelunky, you start with four hearts, and can lose them all less than a second after starting the game (if you've got mad skillz like me). Falling on spikes instantly kills you. Standing next to a tiki trap when it goes off knocks four hearts off your life, which is usually your entire supply. Angering a shopkeeper turns him volatile and getting in the way of his shotgun is almost certain death. Suddenly dying is not fun at all.

But yet I keep going back for more. In the same way that dying sucks, narrowly avoiding death is absolutely glorious. I've never beaten Spelunky, but I've had plenty of moments of sheer awesome that I just want to keep playing it. And while I've loved hating/hated loving Spelunky for a while now, the game I just finished was the motivation for me to write this blog post. And I wish that I was recording that game, because it was possibly the most insane round I've played yet. And I wish I could relay that story to you so you understood all the dramatic highs and lows I experienced. Dodging the timer ghost of instadeath not once, but twice. Stealing seventy-some-odd bombs from the black market and somehow not dying with six angry shopkeepers chasing after me. Getting thrown down a chasm to my death by a yeti and screaming in horror, before realizing that I was being revived because I (accidentally!) picked up the ankh in the black market. Defeating Anubis and stealing his scepter, then eventually falling prey to it in one final showdown with a shopkeeper. According to the in-game statistics, it was my 640th death, and it was my favorite death by far. I've won 0 out of 640 times, but I don't mind. I just hope the next 640 deaths are equally as thrilling.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Making Mölkky

Back in January, my friend Nate joined me for a Schlag den Raab viewing. We were treated to an afternoon of inflating bicycle tires, flailing swords, throwing coat hangers, and soccer with bowling shoes on ice. Yep, par for the course. Spiel 12 on this particular day was a Finnish lawn game called Mölkky. They rolled out a giant mat of grass on the studio floor and played a game where they threw a stick at a bunch of numbered pins. Watching this, Nate and I said to each other, this is something we'd like to try.

A quick primer on the rules: The goal of the game is to be the first to reach exactly 50 points (played on SdR to only 40). On your turn, you throw the large pin (the mölkky) at twelve numbered pins. If you knock down exactly one pin, you score the number on that pin. If you knock down more than one pin, you score however many pins you knocked down. So hitting the 12-pin is worth a whopping 12 points, but hitting the 12 and the 11 is only worth 2 points. Going over 50 points resets your score to 25. After each throw, the pins are stood back up wherever they stopped, so while they start out in a tight cluster, they become pretty spread out quickly. If you completely miss all pins on three consecutive turns, you're out of the game.

I looked for Mölkky sets online, but only seemed to find sets for $50 or $60 (plus shipping), not really a price I'd be up for paying for pieces of wood. So I thought to myself, how hard could it be to make a set? After studying the SdR video trying to suss out dimensions and looking up directions online (even Martha Stewart gives a how-to), I decided to give it a go.

A step-by-step arrangement of the process: The large poplar board, the squared blocks, and the rounded blocks fresh from the lathe.My dad and I picked up a 3"x9"x9' board of poplar from a local lumberyard and started cutting it down into 3"x3"x13" blocks. I rounded down the corners a bit, then spun the blocks on the lathe until they got down to the desired width (about 2 1/4"). I then used a miter saw to make a diagonal cut to split the rods into the pins, sanded everything down, and painted numbers on the pins before several coats of polyeurethane. And voila, Mölkky!

As it turns out, I'm pretty bad at Mölkky. A lot of my throws bounce right over the pins I want to hit, and I've struck out of more games than I'd like to admit. Still, it's a fun game and I'm excited for this summer when I get to play it with friends.

Also, looking back on it, making the Mölkky set was a simple woodworking project that introduced me to a bunch of tools I had never used before. My dad and I started using a circular saw to cut the large board into blocks, but since it didn't cut through the whole way, we switched over to a Sawzall. I started using a plane to round down the corners before putting the blocks on the lathe, but then switched to using a belt sander (and then eventually not rounding the corners down at all, because of laziness). Add in the lathe and the miter saw, and I got a pretty good tour of the workshop under my belt. All of this, after a childhood of Pinewood Derby cars where the only tools I ever got to use (and under ridiculous paranoid parental supervision) were a reciprocating saw and the belt sander (and a hammer must've been involved at some point, though I really don't remember that).

One more thing, remember how I said most of the Mölkky sets I found online were $50-$60? The board of poplar cost me $25, and I got not one, but TWO sets out of it (with scrap wood leftover), one of which I gave to Nate. So, not counting the price of electricity for all the power tools, I made each set for about $10. Hooray for homemade Finnish lawn games as seen on German game shows!

The finished Mölkky sets, coming to a lawn near you!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Of Meat Bicycles and Men

This is my fourth attempt at writing a blog post about Borderlands 2. It's not for the lack of things to say about the game, I've definitely been singing praises about this game to anyone I can for the last few weeks. The bigger problem is that in order to write a blog post about Borderlands 2, I need to stop playing Borderlands 2. And every time I've tried, I think to myself, "I'd rather be playing Borderlands 2." And so I go play Borderlands 2.

I have played Borderlands 2 to the point where not only did I finish the main game, but I restarted the game in the hard mode, I restarted the game as a different character, and I would gladly do both again given the opportunity to do so, perhaps if ever I can rope more friends into playing it. (Edit: As of my fifth attempt at writing this blog post, I have started a third class.) This game has so much personality that even on the second or third time through, I'm still cracking up at gags I've already seen and loving every mission I re-encounter.

Before I sound too fanboyish, I should stress that if there's one thing Borderlands 2 sorta drops the ball on, it's bringing new players up to speed with the world of Pandora. The tutorial seems to be written backwards, where you're vaguely instructed to do a certain thing, then you have to figure out the bulk of it yourself, then after you've done the objective, a window pops up and says, "Hey, you just did X! You can do that again by pressing Y." Through an uncomfortable portion of my first runthrough, I died a lot because I didn't know that I could buy or equip a shield or open up a special menu that boosted my stats, until a friend (his name is Nate, I'll be referencing him a few more times in this post) told me how. Also, the plotline relies on you being familiar with characters and elements from the first Borderlands game. Unfortunately, some of these references went straight over my head until Nate pointed them out to me. And that's especially sad because looking back on it, there are several moments which would have been far more poignant and impactful if I was familiar with the context from the first game, but instead they were wasted on a thicko noob like me.

But those moments of awkward cluelessness aside, Borderlands is still a very accessible game. Unlike hyper-realistic military FPSes where you seemingly need to spend hours memorizing the statistics of every gun available in order to find the one that suits your play style, then playing with that gun for days until you unlock every possible doohickey and never changing your arsenal because there's no need to and it's in fact disadvantageous to ever step outside your comfort zone, Borderlands 2 hands you a gun, shows you a number that tells you what it can do, and lets you take it or not. Sure, you might be used to trying to experience a certain "feel" with some guns, but for someone gun-inept like myself, just being able to say "that number's higher than this one" makes the whole gun system a lot easier to digest. I've become comfortable with a wider range of guns here than I ever did in any Call of Duty game, and I think that's a testament to how well the game teaches you to play creatively rather than formulaically.

Also, Borderlands 2 is incredibly well-written and hilarious. It helps that I'm a fan of lead writer Anthony Burch's web series "Hey Ash, Whatcha Playin'?", and a lot of that breed of quick-witted, occasionally juvenile humor carries over here, but there are many scenes, even non-funny ones, that as I'm playing through on repeat runs, I'm still excited to play through again. Most games I play through have only one or two moments like that, but Borderlands 2 has at least a dozen, maybe a couple dozen at that. I repeat that there are some hurdles with the missing backstory as mentioned above, but particularly if you have someone that can fill in the details for you, the story is worth experiencing multiple times.

Let me throw some numbers at you: As I write this post, Borderlands 2 is on sale for $30 at Best Buy (link), the same sale price I bought it for a month or two ago. If you think of it in terms of a brand new $60 game (we're ignoring the fact that the regular price is apparently now $40), that's a savings of thirty dollars... which I would recommend you reinvest in purchasing the DLC Season Pass, which has three extra playable campaigns available now (and a fourth coming in June). Then, plop another $20 down on the extra character classes for even more fun ($10 each, one available now, the other coming in May). Honestly, this game has provided more fun per dollar than any other game I've played in a long time, and that's even after I keep shelling out for the expansions.

I mean, I could continue trying to crunch the numbers to illustrate why you should play Borderlands 2. I could tell a bunch of stories about, if not the events that happened in the game (which would be very spoilery), then how Nate and I loved watching them play out. I don't want to go melodramatic and stake my left kidney on the fact that you'll enjoy this game, but I hope that the mere suggestion of such an event is enough to persuade you to at least give it a go. Please play Borderlands 2, and with friends if you can. It's an amazing experience, and I don't know how else to convey it to you without repeating myself further, so I'll stop writing now. (So I can go play some more Borderlands 2.)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ight Nams to Rmmbr

You're welcome, Internet.

Here's the source for this. The caveat about "place names (cities, towns, villages, boroughs and Census Designated Places)" makes the entire thing slightly inaccurate (depending on how loosely you define a "city"), but figuring out a quick-and-easy solution to the ridiculous Facebook game was an itch I just had to scratch. There were a couple other cities on the Wikipedia page that met the "no E" requirement, but weren't necessary to hit every state (one of which was Franklin, which would have knocked off the greatest number of states). In the back of my mind, I still wonder, can this still be done with seven cities?

Also, well done to Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

Friday, January 18, 2013

I Should Like To Teach You The Dance Of My Peeps

...Peeps? Crew? Homies? I dunno.

I haven't touched Dance Central (1) in a long time. I got myself into a rut of trying to conquer one song at a time, working from the easiest songs to the hardest songs (more of the songs I was interested in were up front anyway), and within each song, from the easiest mode to the hardest mode. As it turns out, methodically trying to perfect the game from front to back is a pretty bad way to play it. So I barely made it out of the first or second bracket of songs.

Aside from seeing it at PAX East last year, I know little to nil about Dance Central 2.

My sister got me a copy of Dance Central 3 for Christmas. ("I really liked the comment you put next to it on your Amazon Wish List... 'Don't judge me.'") Just as before, I started with the top bracket of songs ("Y.M.C.A.", "Better Off Alone", and "The Hustle"). But as I started to look down the song list, there were some interesting songs that caught my eye (mostly disco stuff, but also newer things like "Moves Like Jagger"), plus other intriguing songs I hadn't heard of before ("Mr. Saxobeat", "Stereo Love"). So I played through them. In some cases, I just threw myself straight into the song (on the easiest level) without even touching the Rehearsal mode. I even spent some of my precious Microsoft Points to purchase "We No Speak Americano" (you know, that song).

And you know what? I'm having fun with it. In approaching the game from a slightly different angle, I've found that Dance Central 3 can be stupid amounts of fun. I'm getting over my need to be the perfectionist who goes for all achievements on the first run through, and I'm just enjoying the game. I find myself even ignoring the flash cards and just trying to mirror the on-screen dancers with songs I've never touched before. Because it's that fun. I don't care if I fail (well, I get a bit miffed if I don't get at least five blue stars), I just want to play the game.

But tonight I tried the Story mode for the first time. Sweet mother of Carl Kasell, it is AMAZING.

I should confess that as I started to work my way through the beginning of the Story mode, I was laughing hysterically at how ridiculous the premise is. You're invited to a secret underground dance party, which turns out to be the initiation for an equally secret underground dance FBI agency (I guess). And then you're sent back in time (yes, TIME TRAVEL, IN A DANCE GAME) to unlock dance moves from different eras in order to stop "Project Lockstep" and... See, now you know why I was laughing so hard. It's absolutely ridiculous, but amazing at the same time. I think the game knows how crazy it is, but it doesn't acknowledge it at any point in time. It doesn't matter anyway. It threw me into a couple songs I never tried before, but it made the experience so awesome, I have no regrets about my less-than-perfect performance. I can't wait to play through it more.

I'm not very far into it, but if you have a Kinect, I strongly recommend you pick up a copy of Dance Central 3. It's my favorite dance-based game so far, partially because of its good song mix, partially because of the more enjoyable atmosphere it brings that DC1 seemed to not have, partially because it's just plain fun. On the other hand, it's entirely possible that I have crap taste in music and it's just grimacing and nodding as I flail in front of my TV, but I don't care. It's so much fun. Just play this game.