Monday, December 20, 2010

Print This Out and Put It Where A Loved One Might Find It -
2010 Edition

Every year for the last (*checks... oh.) one year, this website has offered up a list of suggestions for games worth buying on Steam during their holiday sale, either as last-minute gifts or as guilty pleasure purchases for yourself. I was planning on writing a blog post of recommendations prior to today, but with the sale starting hot on the heels of a giveaway, I was slightly caught off-guard. However, I'd been considering some things on my list to suggest, so I'd like to share them with you now. (The games on last year's list still stand, of course.)

Poker Night at the Inventory - Steam link
I mentioned pre-ordering Poker Night in a previous post, and I've now had a chance to play through it. In this game, you play a pretty straight-forward tournament of Texas Hold'em against Max (of the Sam and Max point-and-click game series), Strongbad (of Homestar Runner fame), The Heavy (of Team Fortress 2), and Tycho (of Penny Arcade fame). The characters make witty remarks about the proceedings of the tourney, as well as engage in banter with each other about their daily lives while playing. However, the banter seems to run dry fairly quickly, especially the one-line comments about how you're playing and whether they're betting or folding, so if you're simply buying this game because it's got a few characters you love, you're probably buying it for the wrong reasons.

Perhaps surprisingly, Poker Night at the Inventory is worth buying simply because it's a good poker game. There aren't a lot of frills to the game, but the un-tampered-with simplicity is what makes it such a good choice. The AI seems slightly erratic at times, but some would argue that that's how poker should be played. (Or the AI is just trouncing me regardless... and I'm still on normal difficulty!) What Poker Night lacks in variety, it makes up for in its straightforward-ness. If you're looking for a good, cheap poker game that may surprise you with the occasional laugh, Poker Night at the Inventory is worth a go.

VVVVVV - Steam link - (demo available)
VVVVVV, which debuted back in January if I remember correctly, could possibly be described as one of the gaming highlights of my year. The 2-D retro platformer by Terry Cavanagh is based on the principle that your character, Captain Viridian, cannot jump, but rather, reverses gravity to overcome obstacles. I should mention that there are plenty of obstacles (namely a ridiculous amount of spikes) waiting to kill you, so the simple task of getting from point A to point B, which might be as short as a few pixels away, can be a grueling task. Despite the difficulty, VVVVVV is terrifyingly addictive, as you can't help but give a particular challenge "just one more try." I remember when I first played through the game and spent close to a half hour attempting to pass one notoriously difficult passage (pictured here at the halfway point). I'll never forget throwing my arms up in triumph and screaming when I finally nailed what seemed like an impossible task. (I'm glad no one else was home at the time.)

That was nearly a year ago now, and after multiple replays through the game, beating that passage is absolutely no problem at all for me. I've mastered the game to the point where I can beat it in about a half hour, and with a fraction of the deaths it took me before. Amazingly, this game has still not lost its appeal. Despite its simplicity when every room is well-practiced, I still come back this game to tackle a level in a speedrun. Earlier today, I loaded up the game just so I could listen to the music while wrapping Christmas presents (the soundtrack, PPPPPP, is available here for $4, by the way). VVVVVV is honestly a tremendous game in a tiny package, and I would recommend it to anyone willing to take it on. If nothing else, the game's regular price is now $5, down from the original $15 when it was first released. To quote someone else (sorry I can't remember who specifically), there's really no reason not to own this game anymore.

Assassin's Creed II
Right then, here's something completely new: I'm about to recommend a game I don't even own. (Yet. Hopefully. Here's my Steam wishlist, by the way. In case you were curious.) A friend started me off playing Assassin's Creed II on his PS3 after I expressed interest in the series, particularly after Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood came out a month or two ago. I'm probably only three hours into playing the game, but I've been completely floored by what I've experienced so far. Without spoiling too much of what I've experienced so far (though why bother avoiding spoilers, I'm already months behind on this one), one of the things I've loved so far is the stealth aspect of the game, something I didn't encounter (properly, anyway) back in that Thief game long ago. Sneaking around is simple, but still tricky to master, in that way that makes you feel like a champion when you finally pull it off. Factor in a pretty involved storyline, fan-freaking-tastic graphics, and a bowl of popcorn (or at least, that's how playing it at my friend's place has gone), and you've got one pretty amazing game, based at least on the three hours I've played of it so far.

In the interest of fairness, I will throw out a couple of disclaimers, seeing that I haven't played this game in its entirity yet. In my first stealth-based mission, which I loved so dearly, it turns out that in order to complete the task (which required me to kill a certain person, sneaking up to them), it turns out that after three attempts to make the kill in perfect stealthful-ness, the proper way to finish the quest is to break cover for the kill, then roll a cutscene in which you declare your vengeance on the town to everyone watching. I'm so happy I spent all that time trying to be noticed just for it to be blown for the sake of a cutscene. I hope that sort of incident (sacrificing normal or desired play to set up a cutscene) doesn't happen often in this game, as that instance left a sour taste in my mouth.

Another minor quibble I have is simply personal; I hate playing sequels to games before I play through the originals. There are exceptions of course, like Left 4 Dead 2 (where the gameplay is pretty much the same as the original) and Team Fortress 2 (where the game experience is way different from the original... how's that for a double standard?), but I couldn't/can't help feeling like I'm missing something by not playing the original. From what I gather from multiple sources though, The original Assassin's Creed got stale rather quickly, and AC2 improved on it tremendously, while AC:Brotherhood maintains the high standards of AC2. That all said, I'd still like to at least play through the original Assassin's Creed, but with the opportunity to play through AC2 presently at my fingertips, I won't hesitate to jump on that. Going by what I've experienced so far, I'd list Assassin's Creed II in my recommendations.

The "Other Recommendations" Lightning Round
The Ball
- Steam link - demo available - JiG Review: I once heard someone describe The Ball as what Portal would be like if it ran on the Unreal engine. I'm not familiar enough with the latter to really be sure, but it's definitely got the puzzling heart that Portal had. (Thanks Thomas!)

Puzzle Dimension - Steam link - demo available - JiG Review: Puzzle Dimension is like a lot of games where you've got to grab some loot and make it to the door, but with the extra twist of levels that play with gravity and other little spacial tricks. Definitely a challenge, but a somehow relaxing one at that.

Magnetis - Steam link - demo available: Simple-yet-hard Dr. Mario-esque puzzle involving connecting magnets to clear blocks. Good fun in solo mode, but I want to try this in multiplayer sometime.

That essentially wraps up my recommendations for this year's Steam sale. Again, I'd suggest rereading last year's list, and also see some of my reviews over the past year for more picks. And as a final reminder, if you'd like to show your appreciation for my helping your game-buying plans, I'm sure there's something you could do to thank me. (That's not too tacky of a way to end off a post, is it? Desperate pleading?) Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wir Wetten, Sie Können Nicht Sehen

Right then, I advise that you start by watching the following video clip. Fair warning, this clip features a Chinese man swearing in English on a German game show.

This is from a show called Wetten, Dass...? The show features members of the public attempting to perform various stunts, ranging from the bizarre to the nerve-wracking, but always difficult. Meanwhile, big-name celebrities come on the show to small talk with the host, and try to bet whether the MOTPs will be successful or not, with a forfeit attached to incorrect guesses. (For example, in the clip above, Jackie Chan incorrectly bet that the girl would be able to break the bricks without breaking an egg in her hand, so he had to perform the task himself. He did it a bit too well, I think.)

The Jackie Chan clip was not my first exposure to the show, although it was one of the first. My first Wetten, Dass moment was a man balancing a stack of Jenga blocks on a pole on his forehead, while his partner proceded to play the game of Jenga on a raised platform, trying to raise the height of the tower from 10 blocks to 15. They succeeded, but with some incredibly tense moments when the man had to stop his partner while he regained balance of everything. Sadly, the clip is no longer online, though I do have it saved on my computer. If you're looking for more ridiculous bets, I'd recommend this one, this one,, and... oh what the heck, this one.

Wetten, Dass...? has been on the air for 29 years now, although only showing six or seven episodes per year (not unlike the previously-reviewed Schlag den Raab). In its history, the show has been riddled with a few controversial moments, but has still stayed strong and popular as ever. At one point in time, the Wikipedia page boasted that the show would regularly attract over 2/3 of all German-speaking viewers (the show airs in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland), a rating comparable to the finale of M*A*S*H or a Super Bowl, except every other month. To give you an idea of how ridiculously popular the show is, Pope John Paul II offered to appear on the show via a video link. (The offer was declined, on the grounds that it would set the precedent for future celebrities to appear only via video instead of in person.)

For the record, there was a short-lived American version on ABC a couple years ago. It wasn't anything special. Moving on, then...

Obviously, there's a reason why I bring this show up, and here it is. On an episode that aired this weekend, Samuel Koch attempted a bet in which he would jump over four out of five moving cars using special spring-loaded shoes. Dangerous stunts of this nature had been attempted before, but, spoiler warning, never had there been a failure of this nature before. After having cleared the first and third car (and cancelling the second car when he realized he didn't get enough speed), Koch clipped the windshield of the fourth car with his head, which caused him to over-rotate his flip, landing him flat on the ground in no subtle fashion. As far as I know at this point, Koch is still in critical condition. If you care to watch the video of the incident, click here, however, be forewarned that though the accident itself is not graphic, it's still incredibly hard to watch. The accident occurs about halfway into the video.

Whether or not you watch the clip, there's something I really want to point out about this incident. After the accident occurs, the cameras do not return to Koch, except for one zoomed-out split second, which I would assume to be a mistake. The rest of the time that the cameras are rolling (five or six minutes' worth), the shots focus on wide audience shots and celebrity reactions, and the host giving a few final words. The live feed was cut, and a back-up episode was put in its place.

What I really appreciate about this scenario is the deference given to the injured Koch. In a rather un-American fashion, the cameras do not scramble around him to get close-ups of his silent suffering, but stay completely out of the way, and avoid catching a glimpse of him at all costs. I could only imagine that if this were American television, the director would sic the cameramen on the limp body, trying to get shots of his anguish from every angle. Then, we'd be treated to numerous slow-motion replays and once the body was out of the way, the show would continue normally. As an overly-broad example of this, think of most injuries you see during a football game on TV and how they're managed on-camera. I'm really glad that was not how Koch's situation was handled.

Surprisingly, this is actually the second instance of this sort of respect for the injured I've seen on German game shows. (Surprisingly, I watch German game shows.) On an episode of Schlag den Raab from sometime this summer, a BMX bike-racing event saw a number of crashes taking place, between both Stefan and his opponent. However, in one moto, both Stefan and his opponent crashed on the same obstacle, a small bridge of some sort, if I remember right. Stefan's opponent recovered fairly quickly, but Stefan had some rather brutal injuries and was effectively "out" for a few minutes. During this time, while the host's audio continued, the only camera shot shown was a zoomed-out overhead shot of the course, with the emergency crews helping Stefan just on the edge of the screen. No close-up shots were used until Stefan had recovered from his crash a few minutes later. (Replays of the crash would be used later, but with tasteful restraint.)

Koch's accident (and how it was handled) really makes me think about the standards by which our media operates. I can't remember where I heard it, but someone once uttered the phrase "If it bleeds, it leads," in regards to journalism in America. Part of me wants to believe that we have higher standards than that, but yet I know we don't. To a certain extent, I'd be willing to bet that this story wouldn't have made it onto Yahoo! News if Justin Bieber weren't supposed to perform right after Koch's bet (Ta, David at Bother's Bar for the link). It's this sort of incident that makes me wonder if we're doing something wrong with our media. It's rather late now, so I'm not exactly able to wrap up my point how I wanted to, but this incident is something to consider.

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Nanoblogging Is Your Microblogging - Episode 1

Honestly, this sort of post is why I would be better off with a Tumblr account, but hey, here we go. Besides, I just finished a 15-page research paper on the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 and I need a good way to celebrate.

1. Oh God, the Doghouse Just Fell Off the Front of the Lorry
As I'm typing this paragraph, I'm losing my "Top Gear" virginity. I've heard enough stories about some of the ridiculous things they've done on this show, and I've been itching to watch this show for some time now. Thanks to the magic of Netflix on a video game console, I'm now on my third episode and loving it. (Season twelve, if you're curious.) I love the fact that I (as well as many other friends of mine) am/are not HOLY CRAP NOW THAT OTHER LORRY IS ON FIRE (ahem) Sorry about that. I love the fact that many of my friends and I are not car fans, but this show definitely has enough humor to appeal to a wide audience. I'm hoping to keep watching more of this, because it's quite good. I understand that there's an American version debuting on the History Channel on Sunday... Honestly, I'm a bit scared. I don't know if we can really match the unique British-style humor and general enjoyability I'm seeing here.

2. Poker? I 'Ardly Know 'Er
I preordered Poker Night at the Inventory back on September 3 (or so my tweeting indicates). It was an impulse buy, half because because I was in the mood for something poker-y at the time, half because it had a bunch of characters I recognized in it and the concept seemed ridiculous enough to work. It's now mid-November, and the game is still slated to debut Mid-November. Having now seen the preview video, my thoughts are faltering a little bit. If, from what I gather from the video, the game boils down to playing poker with four characters from random games, there had better be a ton of witty banter to go along with it, or else the game is going to go stale pretty quickly. I'm still hoping for the best, but I'm starting to feel leary about my (under $5) decision, and the fact that no actual release date has been finalized yet worries me a smidge.

Another impulse buy, I bought BIT.TRIP BEAT. Verdict: Not worth the price. If you're not familiar with the game, just think of a one-player Pong in which everything you hit is timed to coordinate with the music. This should be a good concept, but something kinda falls flat in the final package. One thing I really like about the game is that each level takes (totally guessing here) 10-15 minutes to complete, so it's really an endurance challenge. Unfortunately, each long level builds up to a rather underwhelming boss battle at the end. The first boss is the only slightly novel boss (level two is just Breakout, level three is Pong against the AI that's heavily stacked against you). And after three bosses, that's it. The entire game is three levels long. It's sadly not worth the $9 I paid for it. That said, it still is a decent game (except for the bosses), the music is pretty good, and the endurance factor makes the game oddly replayable, so I'd still recommend the game to a friend, but only after the price drops to at least $5, if not $3.

4. One Day, I Will Regret Everything I've Written on the Internet
I've been thinking a lot about the future of this blog. While I would like to continue using it as a place for musings about games, television, and other media-based oddities, it's getting to that point in time (namely, near the end of my college career) when I need to start thinking "professionally". I don't think the quality or nature of my posts would change, but I think I need to spruce things up and make this place more presentable. The Uniqlock? That's gotta go. The Onion Ring Tally? That's staying. The somewhat overused Blogger template with some minor color tweaks? That's something that's really got to be changed. In fact, it'd probably be for the better to get out of the * domain just for the sake of additional "professionalism" and buy an actual domain name for myself (although choosing a professional-sounding name is going to be hard, considering that I'm already battling against other famous people). In any case, I'm thinking I've got to fix things up for the sake of "professionalism", as much as it hurts. I'm thinking of throwing up some sort of portfolio for projects and writings I've done, plus keeping the blog (and archives) alive. So my main question is, does anyone have any suggestions for how to get started on the breaking-free-from-Blogger-and-starting-to-look-professional process?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

No Ordinary Blog Post... wow, that was unclever

For a class, I was assigned to follow one of the television shows that debuted this fall. I was lucky enough to have been able to grab ABC's "No Ordinary Family," which airs Tuesdays at 8pm EST. I say that I'm lucky because it is just as interesting and intriguing as I had hoped, and it was also one of the few shows that didn't look terrible. (I feel kinda bad for the kid that got stuck with "Lone Star"...)

"No Ordinary Family" follows the lives of the Powells, a slightly dysfunctional family that becomes slightly less (or more?) dysfunctional after a family vacation to Brazil results in a plane crash into a mysterious lake. As a result of something in the water, the family develops superhuman powers, such as father Jim's (Michael Chiklis) super strength and ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound (though NOT fly), mother Stephanie's (Julie Benz) 600mph running speed (and a side effect of a ridiculous metabolism), daughter Daphne's (Kay Panabaker) who can read minds, and son JJ's (Jimmy Bennett) genius mind.

On the whole, the show is fun to watch, and the running plotlines (such as Jim and Stephanie's constant arguing over when it's "right" to use their powers and JJ's initial reluctance to tell his parents about his powers) make for some interesting drama. I won't say the writing is entirely perfect, though. There are moments where the dialogue and action feels sorta... oh, what's the word... hokey. For instance, there are times (which seem to pop up at random) where you can't help but feel like everyone around the Powells are completely thick and miss the obvious signs that something just plain ain't right with this family. I'm saying this while well aware that we, the audience, have the omnipresent eye and know everything that's going on, but it still feels like someone somewhere should have picked up on something.

While not entirely proving my point, I would like to reference a scene from this week's show. In this episode, Stephanie's prying parents stop by for a surprise visit, and the family try to keep them entertained (and to keep their secret safe). Steph's father (Bruce McGill), still under the impression that JJ's thick, schools his grandson for a few games before the following scene occurs. (Note: Video will likely expire about a month from when this post is written.)

Well then, how many things did we spot wrong with that scene? Trust me, you've got to see the amazing stuntwork that takes place later in the episode, it's equally sad. Not all of the show is this terrible, but there are those moments of hokeyness that just drive you up a wall.

In any case, the main point of the class assignment was to follow the show, and pay attention to the ratings. To be honest, "No Ordinary Family" is against stiff veteran competition, including apparent old-person favorite "NCIS," younger-skewing powerhouse "Glee," and... well, "The Biggest Loser" returned for another season. Let's give them a hand. Right then, the ratings (as of this Sunday, when I first scrawled out this chart):

Wa-hey, a pretty consistent third place! For being the rookie for the time slot, I'd say that "No Ordinary Family" is holding its own fairly well (though I'm not a network exec, so I could be way off). There's something about those Tuesday 8pm numbers that scare me a bit though. While "NCIS" consistently holds rating well over its nearest competitor on most nights, "Glee" wins over the 18-49 demographic on nights with new episodes. "Dancing with the Stars," normally a powerhouse for the older demographic, creamed "NCIS" with last week's early results show. These two factors lead me to believe that while "Glee" gets the younger crowd (and subsequently, the advertising), "NCIS" gets the points from the Neilsen Nursing Homes across America.

So where does that leave "No Ordinary Family?" Limbo, I guess. It's holding its ground, but it's not really excelling. Seeing that it hasn't gotten the "Lone Star" treatment yet, I still think there's great potential for the show. Most of the casual remarks I've heard/read about the show say that it's "interesting." I hope ABC continues to back this show, because they really do have a unique show on their hands. I've somewhat fallen in love with the plot, despite its flaws, so I hope this show catches on, possibly in a different time slot where it has more exposure. Oh, and some more consistent writing would be lovely.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

De-ta De-ta Tsu-ki-ga

About a month ago, I bought Hacker Evolution and Hacker Evolution: Untold on Steam (because they were on sale, natch). In the last month, I've gotten through three levels of the first game, mostly because I've not had the time to play it more. Similarly, I've been wanting to write about for all of the last month, but I've not had the time to, though my thoughts have been accumulating since then. (And some of them spilled out in a Skype conversation with a friend which I wish I had recorded, because it would've made writing this so much easier. Dang it.)

If I'm remembering all of the details properly, Brian Spencer's (sorry, I'm really not familiar with the name) Hacker Evolution is set in the year 2025. With technology controlling so many aspects of our lives, it would only be a matter of time before the technology went sentient and needed hacking into in order to stop it. (On a sidenote, I kinda hate how I tend to overgeneralize plot synopses for the games I review and make them sound unnecessarily snarky. I really do pay attention to them, but my memory really is that terrible that details evade me quickly.)

The game is played by hacking computers to acquire information and complete tasks. This is done by manually typing out commands in a MS-DOSsy interface, such as "connect" or "download filename.exe". As you decrypt servers, crack their passwords, and transfer money (the process is done automatically, sadly), your actions are slowly traced, but you can "bounce" your actions through other servers that you've unlocked to slow down the trace time. So in a nutshell, the optimal strategy is to try to unlock servers and use them strategically to minimize the damage you do to yourself later. There are other observation-esque puzzles along the way, but they haven't really stood out as incredibly difficult (or not yet at least).

At the risk of sounding like a Valve fanboy and pointing to the same game in two consecutive reviews, I want to mention something about Portal. When you play through Portal, you're learning the different mechanics of how to play the game while the game is still going on. If you don't believe me, play through the game again with the developer commentary on. They're very specific about how they want to introduce new concepts (how a portal works, how to manipulate storage cubes and other objects, how to fire one portal, how to fire both portals, etc.), and reinforce concepts before moving on to new concepts. I'm sorta surprised to say that knowing the way that Valve sets up their games has actually helped get through other games, like navigating Left 4 Dead 2 maps on my own.

That said, I think that teaching the player how the game works is something Hacker Evolution does wrongly. Rather than progressively introducing new concepts over multiple levels, HE throws a ton of information into the first level for you to absorb. Mind you, it's clearly a tutorial level, and it takes you through everything step by step, but it's all done very quickly, and chances of retention are slim.

Or at least, slim for an incredibly thick person like me. I played through the first level with general ease, trying to soak in all of the details. By the time I started level two, everything I learned in level one was gone. I restarted the game with another account, taking notes on a notepad with all of the commands. Or so I thought, because there was one command I wrote down but couldn't remember how to use, so I ended up playing the first level a third time before I could finish the second level. The third level ramped up the difficulty rather significantly, and it took about five attempts to beat. (By the way, my average for solving a level so far is about 15-20 minutes, so each successive try is somewhat aggravating.)

In addition to this, there's one other hitch that isn't clearly explained upfront in the game that would have been greatly appreciated. As I played through each level, I always assumed that each level, though connected by one plotline, were independent of each other. As it turns out, your progress (including your funds, your computer upgrades, and your trace rate) is completely carried over from level to level, meaning that at the start of the fourth level, I'm already in a pretty bad state from where I left level three, and there's no way to go back and redo levels. This newfound dilemma concerns me because at the beginning of level four, you're confronted with a side mission (not required to complete the level) where someone offers you a ton of cash if you hack something for them. I definitely need the money at this point, but I can't help but be paranoid that whether or not I take this mission will effect how the rest of the game plays out. In fact, it's all enough to make me want to restart the entire game again just so I could be in a better position by this point in the game.

One final gripe, I swear, I came into this game expecting a nice mental challenge. I'm somewhat of a cryptography buff, and I like the challenge of solving a nice, juicy code. The Steam page for both of the games state that (my emphasis added) "The concept behind Hacker Evolution is to create a game that challenges the gamer's intelligence, attention and focus, creating a captivating mind game. Solve puzzles, examine code and bits of information, to help you achieve your objectives." Sadly, so far the game has mostly been a test of focus, as each level is a mental endurance test. I hope the puzzles pick up to a greater depth later on, but all in all, I'm disappointed I'm not manually cracking any codes yet.

(*sigh) Crap, that was way longer than I had intended... Despite everything I've complained about above, Hacker Evolution is a good game. It's a challenge, and it's a bit aggravating to get started, but if you can stick it out, beating each level is an amazing thrill. It's visually unimpressive and the puzzles are a bit lackluster to start out (although it looks like they add some new elements in the sequel, which I'm trying not to touch until I beat the first game), but that's really not important for a game of this nature. What's really important is that for twenty minutes at a time, I felt like I was trying to tackle some huge international crisis using only my wits and a crappy computer, which, rather disappointingly, is not that distant of a memory for me. Hacker Evolution is immersive fun, the biggest hurdle is just getting into it.

Steam Link

Monday, September 6, 2010

Tetris + Music + Portal + ?????? = PROFIT

This might be the fastest game review I've ever written for personal purposes. I literally purchased a game less than an hour ago, and I'm already starting to write about it. Furthermore, I'm going to attempt to finish up writing about it in under half an hour. Pics might come later tonight, but I'm determined to get a word in about this game pretty quickly.

But then again, where would my game reviews be without a pseudo-related tangent to kick them off? Apparently at PAX this past weekend, some more details about Portal 2 were finally dropped, namely, a release date. Portal 2 is, as of the time of the writing of this post, set to debut on February 9, 2011. So mark your calendars, but do it in pencil, because we all know that Valve doesn't exactly run on the same system of time as the rest of the world. (For full disclosure, my source for the date is this video showing a co-op mode demonstration, so here's hoping it's semi-legitimate.) [Edit: Apparently, the date has been out for a few weeks now. Whoops.]

Game review, then. Over the summer, a friend of mine introduced me to a NES gem called Rampart. The object of the game is to try to maintain as large of a kingdom as possible while destroying your opponents and defending against your enemies. While this probably sounds like every tower defense game out there, the main twist is that your kingdom is formed by a miniature game of Tetris. You have a limited amount of time to build and repair your castle walls in between rounds (oh who am I kidding, the build/repair stage is the round), and only areas completely surrounded by walls will count for your score and be usable in the next round.

From the first game I played with my friend, I was hooked. The gravity-less Tetris twist is really fun to play with, and the panic to try to close off a portion of walls before time runs out gives you an amazing rush. I'm honestly amazed that I had not heard of Rampart before, because it's truly the sort of game that's right up my alley.

Enter Chime. At first, I noticed that Chime was a music-based game (though not one where you can use your own music like other previously reviewed games), but then I noticed the Rampart-like gameplay. With all that and a pretty low price (of which a portion goes to charities), I jumped on the Purchase button like a hobo on a ham sandwich. (Unrelated, I've heard that expression used more times in the last week than probably the last ten years of my life.)

Rather than building walls around hollow courtyards, the goal of Chime is to use your stash of pentominoes (I think it was all pentominoes?) to build solid blocks (3x3 or larger) to claim territory. When a block is made, you have a limited amount of time to continue adding pentominoes around the outside to make it a larger block, adding to your score and your territory claimed. When the timer for a block runs out, it becomes inactive for a short bit.

Meanwhile, you've got some sort of music playing in the background. The tempo of the song determines the speed of the Beatline, which scrolls across the board from left to right. When it crosses an inactive block, it clears it, giving you a small time bonus and letting you build in that space again. Unused scraps of pentominoes "age" as the Beatline passes over it, and if left unused too long, will wipe the board clean of unused pieces. This helps to get rid of junk on the board, making it easier to build again, but it also kills off your combo bonus. Claiming the entire board unlocks a special bonus stage that... well, I don't know, I haven't gotten there yet, but there's a ton more points available for that.

On the downside, there are only six songs (thus, six levels) to play with. Each "song" isn't a strict song as much as they are loops that you can add different elements to, but they're still pretty good. Note: This is as far as I made it in the half hour I allotted myself. Dang it. And coming from such names as Philip Glass, Moby, and Jonathan Coulton (yes, it's that song... see, there was a Portal tie-in all along!), you know it'd have to be good stuff. Six songs might get repetitive, but you hardly notice it when you're caught up in the game.

For only five bucks (and since a portion of that goes to charity, I wouldn't expect any sales anytime soon), Chime is definitely worth the price, even with how little comes in the package. At the very least, it's a very fast-paced puzzle that satisfied my Rampart needs, and has a heck of a lot of replayability along with it. Chime definitely gets a seal of approval from this humble blogger.

Steam Page

Monday, August 30, 2010

Ear Whacks - I Apparently Suck at Game Show Pilots

Right then, this is the start of a new series I've been meaning to do for some time in which I highlight some of the podcasts and other audible musings I keep myself entertained with. Over the summer, I whittled my backlog of unheard podcasts down to nil, and wanted to celebrate by reporting on some of my favorites. However, this past week, I was at band camp, and the backlog is now back up to twenty unheard podcasts. Kinda unfair, really.

Anywho, the first podcast I wanted to highlight was a little game show podcast called PinPoint. This is the second podcast game show put out by Alex Davis and company, who run the immensely popular (if you're into game show news) game show news site, Buzzerblog (see also: Double Cross).

The object of PinPoint is to guess the results to survey questions, trying to come as close to the actual percentages as possible. The questions range from interesting and topical, such as how people feel about the proposed Ground Zero mosque, to the bizarre and thought-provoking, such as what people think about s'mores and Ouija boards. The contestants play for Oodles, which are GSN's (formerly the Game Show Network) online virtual currency redeemable for prizes and whatnot. The farther you are from guessing the correct percentage, the more Oodles you lose, and the greater danger you're in of leaving the game.

The weird thing about this game is that I had a very small hand in its production. I was involved in two test pilots, and I had a blast playing. I was also relatively good at the game, nearly nailing a couple of questions on the nose. In both cases though, I lost in the final head-to-head question, missing by a major margin. I wouldn't have won anything for taking first place anyway, but I got some major harassment from my friends when I tried to explain the show to them the next day. (Now that the show's finally available to the public, these friends can hear how tricky the show can be. And subsequently start apologizing. Use the comments box below, thanks.)

PinPoint is a fun game for people who think they know people, and is rather easy to play along with. I was initially critical of how the game is split into three separate podcasts over the course of the week, but the fifteen-minute segments are just the right size for a quick dose of fun and really manages to effectively stretch the suspense over the week. (By the way, definitely listen to week three's game, the entire game is really intense and it had some of my favorite questions of the series so far.) Bob Hagh does a great job of keeping the game moving while bantering with the contestants, and gets right into the heat of the game along with the players. On the whole, PinPoint is a great listen and makes reading America's mind fun (so long as the questions don't involve politics, they kill me every time).

iTunes Link - Official Site

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Does Ms. Pac-Man Know He's Seeing Other Women?

Have you ever had the indescribable urge to try something just because it sounded so amazingly terrible that it had to be hilarious? Old movies seem to have a knack for being a target of this sort of humor (heck, who could forget Mystery Science Theatre 3000 which practically mastered the art of ripping up terrible movies), and many talent shows on television capitalize on humor from terrible auditionees (American Idol and America's Got A Fleeting Desire To Act As Though It Has Talent Other Than Singing are two examples). This same joy of snobbish mockery can even come from games, if you look hard enough.

At some point in time last week, I ran across a banner ad for PAC-MAN Pizza Parlor. As I read through the game's description, I instantly thought to myself, "Mystery Science Arcade 3000". For perhaps not the first time but definitely not the last, I came across a game that looked so terrible, it had to be pathetically hilarious.

The game, in a nutshell (and forgive me for lacking on the exact details of the plot): Cathy's father has lost his memory, and it's up to her to maintain the family business until he can get better again. Naturally, assistance for Cathy comes in the form of a basketball-sized yellow man with a giant nose that happens to pop out of an arcade machine. Naturally.

So in terms of the actual game itself, customers place orders on the left side of the screen, Pac-Man (not sure why it's capitalized in the title) fetches the individual ingredients on the right side, and you assemble and deliver the ingredients in the middle. You start off by serving drinks, then salads, then in a traditionally tertiary object of priority when owning a pizza parlor, pizzas. Mr. P, on the right side, needs to not only collect the ingredients for foods in a specific order (no pepperoni before the dough, no tomatoes before the lettuce, etc.), but also avoid running into ghosts (which randomly turn into fruits for bonus points) and stay away from the edges of his section, as it turns out that he's on a conveyor belt that moves periodically, possibly dragging him off the edge and causing you to lose time (whereas Cathy's only limitation is that she can only carry two objects at a time).

Honestly, there are some pretty cringeworthy parts to this game. The plotline, presented in click-to-see-the-next-frame-even-though-it's-already-in-front-of-you form, seems to be held together with imitation maple syrup (two random guys in suits come looking for my dad with the intention of breaking his legs, only to walk away in near-tears when they find that he's already been hospitalized, and a random old acquaintance shares his honey for use in recipes for no reason other than... well, heck if I remember). The customers seem to always wear exactly one emotion even when angry, and happiness seems to be always expressed with a wink and an accompanying gesture. When a customer orders more than one item, you have to deliver them in a specific order, even though the ingredients pop up at the same time and you can fairly easily assume what some people want in larger orders. Even some of the in-game text seemed to be presented in Engrish, and the freaking fairy (a nickname I assigned her) taught you how to make every single item in the game with robotic repetition, as though we couldn't figure out that a salad with tomato is different from a salad with egg because one has tomato and the other has egg. I want to guess that this game is aimed at a younger, less game-experienced demographic than whatever group I'd be in.

Yet somehow, in some very odd way, it's really not that bad of a game.

Perhaps I'm completely out of the loop when it comes to these time management games that seem to frequently take place at restaurants, hotels, and other service-related industries. Honestly, the last TM game I played was Diner Dash (the original one, which is probably over five years old), which just has one character running around doing every job on the floor of a 'raunt. Somehow, the divide-and-conquer method of splitting up the action into two halves of the screen works well, and it's rather challenging to make sure you don't get too far ahead or behind on either side to keep everything flowing. Perhaps this is an incredibly old mechanic that I've just never seen before, but for now at least, it's really a new thing for me. (In retrospect, there is Arcadia which divides your attention in four directions, but that's different in that the games are independent and doing something in one doesn't really affect what happens in another.)

I guess the $64,000 question left to be asked is why. Why is Pac-Man our assistant throughout this journey? Why is he working on a moving conveyor belt that can kill him if he doesn't move quickly enough? Why do the ghosts randomly show up in the restaurant? You could quickly answer any of these questions with "because it makes it more challenging" or "because it adds to the plot" (it's definitely not the latter). But still, it seems like the developers of the game (which includes Namco, which explains a lot) came up with a semi-feasible premise for a game (girl in pizza parlor), but needed some other schtick to justify some other challenges in the game (stock arcade character helps her). When your justification for making such a terrible tie-in is "to make the game work," perhaps you need to reconsider why the game is broken to begin with. Playing this game with Pac-Man on the other side of the counter feels like awkward product placement. Playing with someone else, let's say Cathy's sister, would be a lot less painful.

Would I buy this game? Likely not. Perhaps my pint of admiration for this game is because it's one of the few time management games I've played in way too long. I definitely wouldn't buy this game because Pac-Man is in the title, and I hope no one else would either. I would recommend it on the fact that despite its numerous annoyances, it's still an interesting take on the time management genre, although possibly one that's overdone and I don't even know it. On the whole, definitely try it before you buy it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unlike Mega Man 2, This Could Still Happen in the Future

As I was reading through my last post, I realized that I had unintentionally made it stupidly long. Four full reviews in one post was really a bit too much all at once. I decided that the next time I wanted to write a game review, I should try to do one game at a time, just to keep things nice and short. Digestible. Manageable. Biodegradable.

This past week, I found myself returning to an old favorite for kicks and giggles. "Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden" is an RPG retelling (forecasting?) of the great B-Ball Apocalypse of 2041. Twelve years after B-Ball was outlawed and many of the legends of the sport are massacred, a Chaos Dunk devastates Neo New York, and Charles Barkley is blamed for the wreckage. It's up to Charles, his son, Hoopz, and a cast of other allies to clear his name and restore the glory of B-Ball to the world. The journey ahead is long and rough, so be sure to stock up on steroids and chicken fries...

Even if you haven't really been paying attention to professional basketball since "Space Jam" (like myself, except I don't think I even saw the movie), the plotline of "Barkley, Shut up and Jam: Gaiden" is easy to follow (although you might miss a few jokes). Surprisingly, despite being a fan-made game (the entire credits list appears to be three pseudonyms long), a lot of work went into this game, and the result is a few good hours of a hilarious trip though basketball, science fiction, and pop culture. "Barkley" isn't just a straight RPG either. It pulls elements from many different genres, including old-school point-and-click adventure games, puzzles, horror/survival games, dating simulators, and a few simple quick-time scenes for good measure.

Be warned though that "Barkley" is very much not a game for children. Between frequent strong language and occasional mature themes, this game is probably for adults only. Also, as this is a fan-made game, there is a bit of editorializing in certain places. The most frequent occurrence of this is at the save points throughout the game. A talking gas pump-like object lectures you on how your American tastes in gaming prove your stupidity and how you should switch to the "far superior" world of Japanese gaming. Fanboyish, yes. Annoying, yes. But I suppose the developers have the right to throw in their pearls of wisdom now and then. (Fine, maybe not pearls of wisdom... How about chickpeas of commentary?)

If you're willing to look past a few minor annoyances, "Barkley, Shut Up and Jam" is truly a fun experience that's worth playing a few times. I remember when I first played this game back in 2008, there were several points in the game where I found myself laughing for five minutes straight. Even playing through this game two years later, I still find some little bits of dialogue that I might have missed before that make me chuckle. "Barkley" is well-assembled and intriguing, and I'm truly hoping that the mentioned sequel is not a gag, because I would really like to see this game continue.

Go download it for free.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Wishing You a Happy Rest of July, Because the Fourth is Gone

You know what makes for a good combination? The end of a semester of summer courses, a well-timed Steam sale, and a blog post. Yes, my tastes are screwy, but this is what I do best. (Sometimes.) I ended up buying three games during the sale, and after playing through them a bit (although some more than others), I'd like to share my findings with you. (I feel like I should be wearing a lab coat as I explain these to you.)

Left 4 Dead 2 - Steam link
Remember how I always used to keep talking about Team Fortress 2 and my undying love for it? Well, that's still in place. But surprisingly, Left 4 Dead 2 is up there in terms of shmups that I actually find to be fun. I'm sure I don't need to explain much about the premise of L4D2, but for the uninitiated, it's a zombie apocolypse again (the "again" because it's a sequel, obviously), and the only four survivors (sorta... remember that it's a sequel) are trying to escape relatively unscathed. You team up with three other players and basically shoot anything that moves en route to the exit point, with a couple of exceptions (namely, each other and witches).

I've not played the original Left 4 Dead, so I'm not sure how much L4D2 expands on the original, but as someone whose main shmup experience lately comes from TF2, L4D2 is a rather refreshing change of pace. In addition to the garden-variety "common infected", you've also got Spitters that vomit acid everywhere, Jockeys that ride their victim and push them towards massive throngs of the infected, and the witch that basically kills you in one shot if you startle her. Swell. Needless to say, this game is quite a bit different from TF2 as you're now faced with a horror-themed zombie film setting rather than a jovial, cartoonish romp.

While the game is intended to be played with four players online, there are plenty of offline modes with computer AI to practice on. I've primarily stuck to the easiest difficulty, and the AI usually does a good job of saving my butt everytime a Charger pommels me. Unfortunately, I've gotten quite used to these near-perfect AI, and that hurt me yesterday as I played my first online game. Even on the easiest difficulty, I think I died a total of three times, and our team had to restart one chapter over again because we all died. The AI spoiled us, basically.

I've still not had the time to look over all of the aspects of this game (such as the numerous multiplayer modes as well as the weekly "mutations" that offer a random challenge to tackle), but Left 4 Dead 2 is entertaining and holding my attention so far. I'm hoping that with a bit more practice, I can become more comfortable with this game and hopefully hook up with more friends for some fun. (Besides, they pressured me into buying the game, so they owe me.)

Shatter - Steam link
First off, let me confess something to you: I really wish this game sucked. I wish I could tear this game limb from limb, picking apart every annoying bit about this game until there's nothing left, solely because I have an amazing arsenal of jokes about this game lined up (the most obvious being what happens when you change one letter in the game's name... and no, it's not Chatter, Swatter, or Shutter).

Alas, Shatter is a good game. It might look like your standard Breakout/Arkanoid clone at first glance, but Shatter makes good use of physics to significantly impact the game. The main mechanic you can use to your advantage is that your paddle (a spaceship, natch) can generate wind to move the ball and blocks in different directions. Hold the left mouse button to suck and the right mouse button to blow (two more jokes I would have capitalized on if this game was bad). Shattered bricks release shards which, when sucked in and caught by the paddle, increase your multiplier for the wave and build up for a powerful storm attack that can clear half of the board if used properly. Sucking can also be dangerous though, as any bricks that hit your paddle temporarily stun it, which puts you in danger of losing a ball. On the other hand, if you do this before launching a ball, the automatic ball-launching timer resets back to zero, and it's possible to clear out the majority of some levels without breaking a single brick. Obviously, there are less points available for doing this, but it gets you through the levels quicker.

One major difference that sets this game apart from most Breakout clones is the use of boss battles at the end of each world to face off against. Each boss has a unique defense system that must be conquered before you can do any damage, and part of the fun of each boss is figuring out how it works. Some follow the standard hit-the-shield-until-it-breaks mechanic, but some require you to suck or blow the boss into a certain position before you can attack. I didn't think it was possible to get one of those "aha" moments from a Breakout game, but Shatter accomplishes it with its fiendish boss fight puzzles.

I can only think of two minor quibbles to file against this game, and neither one is terribly significant. First, of the three shapes that the levels will come in (rectangle where you play on the side, rectangle where you play on the bottom, circle where you play on the bottom), the circular levels are generally annoying. It's hard to predict where the ball will go with each bounce. I'm partly tempted to outright accuse the game of completely botching natural rebounding physics on this one, but it's just a game and it doesn't much matter here. Also, the keyboard controls seem oddly designed, but it's likely set up in such a way so that you can share the keys with a same-computer co-op player.

Beyond that, there's way more to this game to love than to hate. I won't lie, this game probably first caught my attention for the catchy music in its short preview video (watch it here), but the game itself more than met my expectations. Even if you're only an average player, the game seems to be designed to give you little boosts when you need it (such as 1-ups appearing more frequently when you suddenly run low on lives), which makes this game harder to put down. Of the three games I bought in this sale, I've probably spent the most time with this one so far, and I'm thoroughly glad I caught it when it was on sale.

Thief: Deadly Shadows - Steam link
Writing this bit is going to be interesting, because this is the game I've had the least experience with, and equally so, the least positive experience with. As it turns out, after downloading this game the other night and having a small power failure earlier yesterday that took my computer down, Thief seems to have disappeared from my computer. I'm laughing about this irony now, but I'll wake up tomorrow and wonder if that's a sign of things to come. Anyway, for the time being, I really can't make any screencaps, and I'm stuck basing the majority of this review solely on what I've experienced in only the first level, the tutorial.

Thief is a game where for whatever reason, you play as a thief who sneaks around and steals things. There's apparently a backstory in previous games that I don't know about, so I'm kinda in the dark here. Honestly, I decided to give this game a shot because I've never done a stealth-based game before, and it was only three dollars. In the tutorial mission, my goal was to steal someone's purse. (Okay, it was a satchel of some sort with a MICROSCOPIC SPOILER special medallion in it, but you catch my drift.) Even though I've only played the first level, I can already see I'm in for trouble.

The controls start out intuitively enough, with the standard WASD to move and mouse to look around. However, this quickly becomes cluttered with all sorts of commands for different actions. Control to creep, X to crouch, 8 to select the water arrow, F1 to select the flash bomb and I to throw it, Alt-P to renew your Netflix account, whatever. I know that eventually I will have to make a cheat sheet in order to play this game so I can quickly figure out where each command is.

Despite this level being a tutorial level, I quickly ran into trouble with the bit on lockpicking. The instructions only tell you that you right-click to start picking a lock, and by moving the mouse around, you will eventually find a "sweet spot". Stay in the sweet spot long enough (how long?), and you will get past each tumbler in turn. The game tells you that you're near the sweet spot when the little tumbler icon is making the most movement. This apparently isn't true, as where I found the tumbler to be moving the most wasn't the sweet spot at all. In fact, after two or three failed attempts, I actually had to look up a walkthrough to get past this part. As a reminder, this is still the tutorial level. Having to look up the solution in a walkthrough on the tutorial level is not a good sign. (Or I'm just thick, but let's not jump to that conclusion. Yet.)

As far as the more stealthy bits go (what few there are in the tutorial), I couldn't really decide if the AI was too dumb or too smart. The guards who keep an eye out for suspicious movement (and announce their findings in comedically melodramatic fashion) seem to either walk right by you when you're inches away from them, or spot you because of a square inch of light from that candle you didn't notice making you completely visible. Perhaps playing a bit more (if/when I re-download the game) will reveal some of the finer points of stealth, but for now, I'm just not getting the hang of it.

On the whole, the interface is rather crappy. To start, the game doesn't seem to want to work with the Steam overlay, which may or may not be a problem caused by the game's designers. However, fiddling with the F1 key for that flashbomb at the end of the level apparently made me tap the Escape key and some other combination of buttons by accident, leaving me at a "load game" screen. I clicked the "back" button thinking it would return me to my game, but apparently I had already exited to the main menu without even realizing it. This forced me to plow through the tutorial level for a fifth time, because if there was any sort of confirmation request before sending me back to the menu, I missed it entirely. Needless to say, I was rather not happy with the game at this point.

It's also a shame that the game isn't working now, because it seemed impossible to play this game during the day. My monitor, which is usually capable of showing contrast between near-black colors if you get at the right angle, seemed to be worthless during the day. On the other hand, the second level (of which I survived twenty seconds) starts out with you in a well-lit entryway, with two guards waiting for you to catch their attention. The more I played this game, the more I felt like I was missing some essential bit of skill I should have acquired from previous installments in the series.

So between overly-complex controls, AI with seemingly random I, and gameplay that leaves you out in the dark, Thief and I are not getting along right now. I'm glad I have a temporary break from the game due to it accidentally uninstalling itself, so I can focus my attention on my two other new games (and more TF2 in prep for another major update). I'd like to try this game again just to see if I can overcome some of these noob-unfriendly hurdles, but for now, I guess I just have to pretend that I didn't notice this less-than pleasant game, disappearing like a Thief in the... oh.

Late Entry: Turba - Steam link
This one didn't show up in the Steam store until yesterday, so this was technically not part of my purchases, but I figured I might include it here anyway. Turba, which I vaguely remember as a project raising funds on Kickstarter way back in the day, is a music-based match-3 game where once again, your music determines how the game is played. From what I could tell you though, the music seems to have less to do with the game than you'd originally expect, but at least it does a semi-decent job with what it does.

As the song you select plays, the rhythm allegedly determines when new blocks are added to your grid, always from bottom to top and left to right. Blocks show up in one of four colors or a bonus multiplier. Your goal is to keep the grid from filling by selecting clusters of three or more blocks (by left-clicking) and clearing them (by right-clicking). Rather nicely, you can select chains of more than one color (although no more than one chain of each color) and clear them all at once, with a bonus for clearing chains of all four colors in one shot. You can also swap columns to make new matches if you're having trouble finding a natural pair. But to make things more difficult, there are time bomb-esque tiles which explode after so many "beats" occur, leaving behind a mess of ugly debris squares that disappear after time. Errant chains also result in debris, so you've got to be rather accurate when you're panicking to clear the board.

This somewhat unfair "heads, I win, tails, you lose" situation makes levels rather difficult to beat, even when on the medium level. I actually have yet to beat a single song on the medium level, because the board just fills up too quickly. I need to try this again with less rhythm-heavy songs, but for the time being, I can only declare this game as outright hard.

So then, where does this leave us with the game's ability to make a game that actually corresponds to the music? Let's check our little rating scale, which still has only two elements, because no one left any suggestions for other factors, cough cough. In terms of reflecting the tempo and rhythm of the music, Turba would probably score a 5, and maybe squeak out a 4 in terms of reflecting changes in dynamics. (For reference, we're assuming Audiosurf scored a 7 in both categories. 7 is pretty good, but there's always room for improvement.) One of the things that makes it difficult to gauge where Turba falls on this scale is how new blocks (which appear on the "beats") don't show up immediately, but rather, fate into view. There's a soft drum kick to illustrate where it's picking up the rhythm, and it's not always accurate, but it at least makes a gallant effort. I've not yet tried a song with a weaker drum pattern and a more prominent instrumental line, so for now I can only guess that the dynamic analyzers are just picking up the spikes in the percussion. Otherwise, I might bump that rating up a smidge.

If you don't mind being pummeled by the difficulty, Turba can be quite a fun game, and it's not really that bad of a music game either. It'd be nice if a little more could be done with the music, but it's at least a moderately fun take on the way-overdone match-3 genre. It's on sale now for a buck off to celebrate its release, but I'll probably wait until the next huge sale comes around to buy it.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Christmas in June? It's a Pathetic Excuse, But It'll Have to Do.

Fine, I admit, this post is filler material. I'm basically doing this post so that I can say that I wrote something in June for this blog. It's not that I haven't been writing at all, it's just that I've been writing a bunch of stuff that will likely never be read except by one or two people. I've been doing a couple of summer courses just to try to lighten my load for my last two semesters, and they've been sucking up a lot of my time and my writing energy. It doesn't help that one class (Mass Media and Culture) actually requires me to keep a small blog relating to my media usage, but that will only ever be seen by myself and the teacher. Possibly in the future I'd like to pull some thoughts from that and use them here, but I'd like to spin them way further than I did in the blog posts there.

I've also been writing for other sites too. Naturally, I've still been writing for Jay is Games (this page has everything I've done in the last two months). I also threw a guest post at Entropic Kitchen which is worth a read. But yet somehow, I couldn't make it back here to write more.

I've had some ideas for things I'd like to do, though. For one, I'd like to do a bit of an explanation of some of the podcasts I listen to. Not everything I listen to is common fare, and perhaps you could enjoy some of the things I hear on a regular basis. I also had an idea for somewhat of a longer-running project that could significantly be aided by this... Details to come, pending the project ever gets off the ground first. I also started a long blog post about a dream I had last month, but I nixed it, because I realized the target audience for that post was way too narrow (it's the specific content in the dream that limits the potential audience).

If I had more time, what would I write about right now? Well, there's a nice sale going on over at Steam right now through the 4th'o July. I wish I could buy more things from it (especially since my classes end this coming week, leaving the rest of the summer pretty free), but I'm low on money right now, so I'll be skimping through this one. My recommendations from this post still stand though, so be sure to check them out. I'd also tack on And Yet It Moves, Safecracker: The Ultimate Puzzle Adventure, and Everyday Genius: SquareLogic as excellent picks if you haven't tried them yet. (Get the links yourself, I'm tired.)

"You Don't Know Jack" is slated to return. This is good news. I was a fan of the online series that ran for a year or two, and I wouldn't mind shelling out a few bucks for the big relaunch whenever it comes.

Please buy Fridge Tetris. It's in the post right below this one.

Yeah, I've really got nothing else. Hopefully more legitimate posts to come in the next couple of weeks when I get my life back.

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Actually Thirty Pieces If You Count the Jar and Lid

My mind is completely shot right now. Over the last few days, I've been struggling to come up with any sort of way to set this post up. I wanted to tie this in with my summer reading list and links to the books on Amazon. I wanted to tie this in with a short essay on why "Sit Down, Shut Up" was actually a very good show and could have lasted longer than one pseudo-season if they had debuted with any other episode than the one they used. Unfortunately, everything I've written in the last few days has been crap and I've scrapped everything.

So, I'll just come out with this announcement: I've finally listed my Fridge Tetris sets for sale on Etsy. Please feel free to meander over to my Etsy store and stock up. They make a great gift for any occasion, and are sure to make your recipient laugh. (At the very least, I've had a 4/4 track record with that.) Even as I type this, I might be close to making my first sale, so be sure to jump on them quick-like! I'll keep making more sets throughout the summer as well as some sets with variants, so be sure to keep an eye out for those as well. Click on the picture to jump to my store!

Friday, May 14, 2010

State of the Twitter

I've been thinking about writing this post for quite some time, hence the terribly outdated title. It seemed like the topic came up again in a big way this past week, so I figured I should dust it off and try to work something up about it.

I think I mentioned once before how I prefer to use Facebook as a utility rather than a means of life (ah yes, here). Since then, I've also started using Twitter in a similar way. For my Communications Theory class this past semester, I did a nice long research project (although it was technically more of a literature review?) on Web 2.0 applications and their practical usage in modern society. Before you ask, I won't be posting it here, no matter how relevant it is to the topic. The end result was terrible, my grade reflected it, and I honestly wish I could have had another week to get the whole thing together and salvage my grade (and dignity) a bit.

Nonetheless, it was an interesting topic to research. Among the articles I researched, a few talked about the impact social networking sites like Facebook may have had on elections, both here and abroad. A couple more talked about how Twitter is being used in health care, and can be an effective means for emergency response. (Interestingly, a week or two before the assignment was due, XKCD published this comic, which I nearly included in my final project.) On the whole, it was awesome and a bit weird to see how much technology, and in particular, the Internet could be harnessed and manipulated by the average Joe.

I used to be in the camp of people who hated the concept of Twitter, because of all the people who do 140-character ramblings about their mundane activities. This is, of course, a stereotype, but it was rather prevalent back then, and it still somewhat is now. I got a Twitter account because of my Journalism professor, who attended a conference where they mentioned Twitter as a means for receiving and relaying news. He suggested that we do a little experiment and get Twitter accounts, and see whether or not it was practical or not.

I'm fairly certain I was the only one who emerged from that experiment with any sort of positive result. In addition to the professor and a few obligatory classmates, I had other friends who were already on Twitter, and making good use of it for spreading news stories they came across. Often times, I would use these stories that the people I followed posted in my radio show, as the hard-copy newspaper I was using sometimes didn't give enough material to make jokes about. As of the time of writing of this post, I follow 17 people, of whom, about half have posted a tweet on some sort of news story that I would later use on my show. My professor is following only seven people, of whom, only one appears to be using the service actively (two if you count myself). (Worth noting: One person he's following seems to have a profile pic not unlike him, although blurry. This person posts tweets (although infrequently) reflecting the same political views as my professor. Final nail in the coffin, pun unintended: Their background picture is a zombie/horror film pic, which my professor has often professed a love for. Doppelganger much? I've got my suspicions.)

After a month or two of non-tweetliness in class, my professor said he didn't much see the point in Twitter, and has stopped using it since then. I've gotten a lot out of Twitter, so what went wrong here? Is it his fault for not being a little more outgoing and following people who post news? Is it my fault for not retweeting the articles that my friends would post? Perhaps we're both a bit at fault here.

Aside from news-sharing tweets, a few reviewer friends and I have used Twitter for more social exchanges, such as comedic debate and banter. Honestly, I don't tweet often, and when I do, it's usually announcing a new blog post, but occasionally I'll tweet my two cents' worth of humorous thoughts. That's the extent of my Twitter usage, and I'm comfortable with that.

Unfortunately, one of the problems that remains with Twitter is that it still gets a bad rap as a useless site. It's hard for a lot of people to overcome the 140-characters-of-narcissism view of Twitter. (I don't need Twitter for narcissism, I've got a blog for that!) Or, they don't see the point of following celebrities mindlessly gabbing away in a similar manner. The popular opinion, from what I gather, is that people don't like Twitter, and if they once did, then it's "dying out," according to a couple of articles I read in some newspapers (which is sorta ironic, if you think about it). There really is a gem of utilibility (ooh, I should trademark that) in Twitter, but you've got to be putting it to the right uses to be able to find it.

My origins with Facebook started out a little differently from that of Twitter. It wasn't until after my freshman year of college that I decided to sign up. So far as I can remember, I didn't have anything against the service when I first found out about it, I just didn't really see the need to get it until later than most people did. Over the summer of 2007, I started my account, and I used it with the intent of, surprisingly, being social with people.

Over time, my Facebook usage started to diminish, and it took on the "utility" role that I have for Twitter. If I needed to get a hold of someone, Facebook was generally a good way to go about doing it. Someone once commented on how "naked" my Wall was. (I had a fun time continuously posting responses of "(This message has been deleted by Facebook Administration.)", much to her annoyance.) My irritation for Facebook probably started when little things called applications became popular. Day in and day out, I would receive endless requests to join some game or take some quiz or other irritating diversion. I quickly came to love the "block application" button, and to this day, I have probably about 300+ applications on my block list. (Sidenote: If you hate seeing all the messages in your newsfeed about other friends' application usage, be sure to check out FB Purity, a very nice script that blocks those sorts of messages out.)

It seems as though Facebook has changed over the last few months though. Part of this might be due to the fact that the majority of my peers, students who graduated last week as Music Education majors, seemingly collectively changed their last names to their middle names to avoid being found in searches. It's not necessarily that there's anything bad in their profiles that they want to keep hidden, it's just that they'd prefer not to have students or employers looking up their pages. All of these years of professors stalking profiles to yell at students for what they have on their pages seems to have finally paid off, apparently.

This does bring up a huge question of privacy, and what people you haven't approved can or can't see on your profile. I think I've gotten my profile on a tight enough lockdown that nothing aside from my name, gender, school, and location are visible to non-friend humans, although I've yet to test this out. However, there's also the numerous problems with non-humans and how much information they can see of your profile. A bot flipping through profiles and farming information would probably be no more effective than a human doing the same thing, so the major information loss occurs when Facebook wants to make a little money.

Perhaps this is an overly-paranoid statement, but I've come to believe that at this point, Facebook now exists first with the intention of making a buck, and providing a platform for social networking second. Part of this sneaking suspicion(!) comes from the ever-changing privacy statements, which seem to grow in length and become more vague and legalese at time goes on, despite Facebook's best efforts to "keep the peoples' best interest in mind." Part of this suspicion comes from how Facebook seems to want to barge into other aspects of my life, and Facebook seems to be willing to shell out my personal information to do so.

Part of this suspicion comes from an instance I had a couple weeks ago, when I checked my actual profile page for the first time in a few days. I was greeted with a Facebookian dialogue box asking me to link my interests to their respective "pages". "Hm, what," I asked. Apparently, the "interests" I put in my profile page are no longer to be read as a normal paragraph explaining my interests, favorite books, TV shows, etc., but are now to be attached directly to the pages they correspond to. As I mentioned before, I use Facebook strictly as a utility, so I have avoided joining any fan pages up until now. Thus, I declined joining any of the fan pages. Little did I know that this would actually delete all of my interests from my profile, leaving me with absolutely no personal information about myself other than my gender and school. Clearly, the Facebook I once knew for sharing information with my friends instead of the whole world is gone. This, among many other reasons which I have mentioned above and will continue to mention below, are catalysts for me to leave Facebook. I'd rather people not look me up by what I enjoy, but rather, who I am.

Thus, in the last couple of weeks, Facebook and I have been on slightly uneasy terms. Apparently, I've not been alone in this. I started seeing news stories popping up on how Facebook might be violating its own privacy policy by selling information to advertisers. Facebook's privacy policy is apparently now longer than the US Constitution (which, frankly, isn't terribly long, but it says something when you have to deal with more legalese to be a member of a website than to run an entire country). A friend of mine has actually decided to leave Facebook entirely, citing a number of links showing how corrupt Facebook really is. I'm very much not alone in thinking Facebook's no longer a good site. (link, link, link, although I might argue with some of the points in the last one.)

Despite its corruption, I still plan to keep using my Facebook account, for the time being at least, because it's still a decent tool for contacting friends. Aside from photos (from which it'd be hard for advertisers to get any personal information about me), my profile is nearly bare, save for a few essential bits of information.

This really is a shame, because I have seen the potential benefits of Web 2.0 sites such as Twitter and YouTube, but Facebook really seems to have gone down a dark path. Do I still think there's hope for the expansion of practical applications of Web 2.0? Possibly, but the faults that Facebook has committed really makes one lose confidence in the system. When you're invited in as a human but treated as a piece of meat, it's hard to enjoy a decent burger later.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I Swear, I Wasn't a Music Major in a Past Life

In case you missed my last posting, here's a sliver of what you missed:


Speaking of Steam (crap, that was a hint, wasn't it?), I spotted a new music game in the store the other day. It's called Beat Hazard, and to quote the game's description, it's "A new experience in gameplay mechanics... Gameplay Powered by YOUR Music!" Huzzah, we've never experienced such a unique concept befo-- Oh wait.

Okay, in fairness, it's not the same thing as Audiosurf. While Audiosurf is a Guitar Hero-esque reflexy music game, Beat Hazard is a Asteroids-esque shmupy music game. You play as a spaceship that moves around with the arrow keys/WASD, and goes pew pew with the mouse. You shoot things that are flying around, you collect powerups, you get points, you try not to die. Not that complex of a game, and at that, not too original.

Theoretically, the main selling point is that your music (sorry, YOUR music) is what changes the actual gameplay experience. As the music gets more "intense", you get swarmed by more or more powerful enemies. Similarly, you can pick up powerups that make the music louder (more intense!) which gives you stronger bullets. Or perhaps the music itself makes the bullets stronger. Or something like that, I'm not quite sure, frankly. (Now would be a good time to mention that like so many games I review, I really can't afford to buy full versions all the time, so I'm working off a demo that limits you to only ten games.)

Sketchy memories of the exact rules aside, the graphics are nice and bright, although flashy to the point of seizure-inducing (as early as the title screen). One problem is that as more enemies flood the screen, it's hard to tell the active enemies, the dead wreckage, the volatile shards of space junk, the visualizer-esque background, and even your own ship apart. I tried to grab a screenshot to give you a taste, but, well, all I could really get was a black screengrab, so there's a bunny for ya. Also, I didn't want to steal the snapshots posted on Steam, because not only are they less than impressive, but they also have captions written right on them that make looking through them feel like reading through an overly-eager father's photo album of a family vacation. ("I love pwning those bad guys to heavy rock!" Yeah, that bad.)

As I mentioned before, the gameplay is kinda lacking any fresh bells or whistles. Move with one hand, fire with the other, and blow stuff up. Quieter/calmer music seems to give you more non-combative debris-like obstacles to shoot (think "Asteroids"), louder/more active music seems to give you enemies in small salvos that fly around and fire back at you (think... Oh dear, I don't know about that many shmups... I'm just gonna throw in Rapture Capture because it's one of the few shmups that I've ever really enjoyed). But there's very little evidence that the music actually corresponds to the game being produced. Sure, it can pick out little spikes of sound in the waveform, but is that really it? To a certain extent, it almost seems like it's just a standard shooter with a really flashy visualizer in the background. If you need a little bit more of an elaboration on this thought, consider the boss battles which seem to appear more at certain time intervals instead of in conjunction with the music, and the visualizer itself which sometimes looks as though it's pumping out beats at a different tempo from the one in the music being played.

In order to remedy this rash of people claiming that the difficulty of the game is determined by the music that's playing, I'd like to propose a system for analyzing this fluctuating corelation. Each game would be rated by a few different criteria, each getting a score from one to ten, indicated by the box above (black out colored bars for scores less than ten, and put the name of the specific criteria in the bottom half of the box... and yes, it did take me two minutes to whip that up in Paint, thank you very much).

The tricky bit in devising such a system is coming up with the actual criteria to grade on. Two obvious ones would be "How well does the game reflect the dynamics/volume of the music?" and "How well does the game reflect the rhythm/tempo of the music?". Frankly, almost any game with a decent music analysis system should be able to look at the basic waveform and pull out those two things. The volume factor comes from the amplitude of the waves, the rhythm (mostly) comes from the wavelengths, or the clusters of waves that make up each sound (drum hits, instruments playing notes, syllables of lyrics, etc.). These are physical characteristics of sound, or at least, physical in the sense that they are observable and recordable.

Honestly, those two criteria could be enough to rank songs with, although it'd be a very bare-bones rating. It'd be nice if there was at least a third criteria, possibly to explore the corelation between the general mood of the music or the instruments used and the shape of the gameplay. Actual "intensity" is so hard to analyze in a song, unless you're actually hearing it and experiencing it.

What I'd like to ask is your opinions on what could be used as criteria for judging the relationship between music and gameplay that is theoretically based on it. Any ideas? I sorta like the criteria of volume-matching and tempo-matching, but what else is out there?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Town Formerly Known As Sue Nork Yitty

1. New York is an amazingly organized city.
I think that every time I've been to New York City in the past, my views have been influenced by what I've seen on TV. Every street is caught in a perpetual traffic jam, it takes forever to get to the other side of town, and you'd be better off walking everywhere. Granted, in every other trip to NYC in the past, I was in a coach bus that didn't jive well with the busy streets, and likely ended up causing half of the traffic jams. When you really back up and look at the streets of NYC as a total pedestrian, traffic lights and regulations are set up to really make for smooth sailing most of the time. Even in busy Times Square, things run rather smoothly (pending the absence of crazy coach bus drivers who block off streets to let kids out to see a musical).

2. Tourists carry cameras, travelers do not.
Technically speaking, these "tourists" and "travelers" are really the same thing, but there's such a strong negative connotation to being a tourist, especially in a big city like this. I used to be a tourist, in fact, taking pictures of anything and everything. I now see how annoying this is to everyone else who just wants to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Tourists like to stand in inconvenient places to take their pictures, such as right on the corner, where mobile pedestrians are actually trying to cross streets, but instead have to dodge stationary pedestrians that are in the way.

I did not take a single picture during this entire trip, despite having my camera on me at all times. I came to realize that half of the pictures I would take pictures of (or most tourists, for that matter) have already been taken and posted on the Internet. If the tourists themselves didn't take them, someone who works at the particular facility in question posted it on their website. This really belongs in a rant all by itself, but it seems like we don't need to travel or take pictures anymore, we could just surf around Flickr accounts and Google Images and get exactly what we need. I honestly returned home with the intention of, if necessary, just doing a quick search for a photo of someplace I went to in order to describe it. This might be part of where my bitterness for tourists and tourism comes from.

That much said and done, once you get rid of the cameras, it's truly impossible to tell a visiting traveler from a New York City resident. Or at least, this opinion comes from a visiting traveler who really can't tell the difference if there is one. Maybe there are some certain dress codes that travelers and tourists use that residents don't, but beyond that, there's very little way to tell one person from another. New York City is enough of a cultural mixing pot such that you can't pick out any ethnicity as local or not. Everyone has the chance to be a local.

Of course, I had to get a little creative...

3. Subways are pretty much the most awesome thing ever.
Confession: I have a mild obsession with public transportation. I'm quite comfortable sitting and looking out the window for long periods of time in the company of strangers. I loved the El in Chicago, and I love the Subway in NYC. I get a really strange kick out of seeing an underground world fly by me from the comfort of my cozy little cabin. The best way I can describe it is like those chase scenes in action films where more of the rush comes from the speed of movement rather than the pursuit itself. That's really a crappy decision... I just like subways. Shut up. Leave me be.

4. Pizza is pizza.
I'd hate to say it, but of the three or four different pizza establishments I ate at over the course of the weekend, I noticed no difference in taste. I'm sorry. I'm sure each of these independently-owned pizza joints have their own claims to fame, but pizza is pizza. There's really little deviation there.

5. It is completely feasible to live in New York City.
Again, most of my assumptions about NYC were formed by media stereotypes and faulty high school experiences. Now that I've seen more of the island on my own and have seen residential areas as well as the big tourist district, I feel that life in a big city such as NYC is completely possible. The only downside is the cost of living there, between high rent and costs for everyday items. Granted, mid-town Manhattan isn't the best representation of prices everywhere, but even as you get away from the middle of the city, prices still do loom higher. But cost aside though, it seems like anyone could function just as they normally would in their hometown. The only thing that changes is the size of everything. And the presense of tourists.