…and it’s about something totally stupid. Ah well!
We have this new YouTube channel, LETS RACING TIME, where the Talking Time dudes get together and pretend to be good at video games. It’s probably just a fad that will die out once we run out of Mario and Mega Man games, but it’s a good way to spend an evening in the meantime. It’s also proven to be an effective way to dredge up long-forgotten childhood memories.
Some of the dudes just did a race of Super Mario Bros. 2. Man, that game takes me back! I was in second grade when it was the new hotness, but I didn’t own an NES, so my only exposure to the game was the Play Choice 10 machine at our grocery store. The Play Choice 10 was a Nintendo-branded arcade machine which had ten NES games loaded into it. It also had a built-in timer, so even if you were great at the game you picked, your quarter only bought you about three minutes of play time. Looking back, the damn thing was more like an interactive commercial for Nintendo games than a real arcade machine, but whatever, I was seven, I didn’t know the difference.
My point is, I only got to play Super Mario Bros. 2 in three-minute chunks while my mom did the grocery shopping. Maybe a little more, if I managed to squirrel away a couple of extra quarters throughout the week. And if I do say so myself, I got pretty good at playing the first few levels. I could consistently make it as far as Mouser by the time Mom rounded the corner with the shopping cart.
Another thing I did when I was seven, in those rare times when I wasn’t fantasizing about playing Nintendo, was attend second grade. The science curriculum that year involved learning all about dinosaurs. Every Friday we learned all about some rare and obscure kind of dinosaur. Not like a tyrannosaur or a stegosaurus — I mean the kind of dinosaurs with names nobody can pronounce. In fact, my favorite part of the lesson was learning to sound out each new name. One of the ones we learned was the velociraptor, which Jurassic Park had not yet made famous. Another was ornitholestes, which is a cool little dinosaur that has backwards-bending forelimbs.
I thought for sure dictionary.com would have an audio pronunciation guide for the word “ornitholestes”, but it doesn’t, which makes the rest of this post pretty dumb. But then it was pretty dumb from the outset, so I’m just going to press on with it. Bear with me, I’m still getting the feel for having my blog legs back.
The cave levels of Super Mario Bros. 2 have this rhythmic, ultra-repetitive song which, if you’re playing the game in three-minute chunks within eyeshot of the supermarket checkout, has a tendency to burrow into your skull and devour your brain. It starts out with this really intense “doot-do-do-doot-dooo” which, if you’re in second grade and learning about dinosaurs, scans perfectly with the word “ornitholestes”.
Bring it all together, and you have me here, tonight, watching Talking Time’s SMB2 race, and I’m singing along to the cave track: “Or-ni-tho-les-teeees, or-no-tho-les-teeeeees!”
I’ll let you guys know if I come up with a second verse.
A few months ago I posted five episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic that I wanted to see in season three. The main crux of the post was that I wanted to see more of the same quality the writers had delivered in the first two seasons, and that I wanted them to continue surprising me with new things I didn’t know I wanted until I got them.
With season three come and gone, I figured I’d look back and see how it stacked up, and then offer some thoughts about what I awnt to see in season four.
#1: Fluttershy gets something new and interesting. I think Keep Calm and Flutter On took care of this nicely! The interactions between Fluttershy and Discord in this episode, and between Fluttershy and her friends about Discord, are the most interesting things she’s gotten since The Staremaster. What Keep Calm did was take one of Fluttershy’s existing character traits — that she has the patience of a saint — and applies it in a new way: handling Discord. The episode showed that she can be manipulative, and that she can be legitimately hurt or upset without going full-blown-weepy or hair-trigger-rage. As to whether it allowed Fluttershy to grow as a character, well, I noticed in the very next episode that she was confident enough to manipulate Spike… albeit in a friendly and non-committal way. Maybe that would have happened anyway, and I was just more open to noticing it because of Keep calm. But it worked for me, and now I’m not as ambivalent about Fluttershy as I was.
#2: Princess Celestia is the bad guy. Big swing and a miss, but then, I was expecting that. Not only is Celestia still the same boring mascot/mother/godhead, but we have seen the role of Cadence expanded greatly, she who is by all appearances Celestia Jr. Some fans have speculated as to some greater scheme or motive of Celestia’s, given the smattering of metaplot we were subjected to throughout the season, but I think that’s just frantic clutching for meaning.
#3: Scootaloo gets her cutie mark, but her friends don’t. We didn’t get to see the story of the Cutie Mark Crusaders advance in any meaningful way, although they were used appropriately in a few places, most notably in Sleepless in Ponyville and Just For Sidekicks. The other half of my reason for wanting this episode was that I thought Scootaloo was about due for some development of her own, which happened to my satisfaction in Sleepless. That episode was nothing groundbreaking, but it taught us a few things about Scootaloo and left the door open for future developments.
#4: Legends of the Dark Knight, but with ponies. Not only did this not happen, but I’m no longer as convinced as I was that the series is mature enough for it to happen. The whole season was fairly shallow when it came to background characters. Oh well.
#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Dash was reading a Daring Do novel in on scene, so at least the character is still alive. Stil…
In addition to those five things, there were two more I didn’t note which, in hindsight, I probably should have. They are:
#6: Continue supplying great songs. I am a sucker for musicals, and I had every reason to believe the third season of Friendship is Magic would continue the trend. Sadly, it didn’t. Without going into particulars, I have described the songs from this season as “straight-up kidz bop dogshit”, and meant it.
#7: The return of Trixie. This is something a lot of fans were clamoring for, which falls under my umbrella of “fans don’t really know what they want”. (In fact, I used Trixie’s return as a pointed example of the kind of thing I didn’t want to see.) However, Trixie did return, and in a way that actually spoke to the quality of the show’s writing and to the development of her character. The episode was not just “hey look it’s trixie again doing more trixie things”, even though that would have satisfied mostly everyone. Instead, the episode was a logical extension of her previous appearance, and a very natural continuation of her relationship with existing characters. Bringing Trixie back was a great way to put a spotlight on Twilight Sparkle and show just how much she had grown since Trixie’s last visit. In other words, Magic Duel was pretty much exactly what I said I wanted to see out of season three. That they can get Trixie right and yet still fumble with Cadence is baffling to me.
Enough about season three. Season three is, like, behind us, man. Let’s move on to things I want to see in season four. In general, I still want the same things: I want to see the existing characters and setting expanded upon, and I want to continue being surprised with the types of stories the writers are willing to tell.
#1: Twilight’s promotion needs to go somewhere interesting. A lot of fans had themselves a big gushy fansquee at Twilight’s promotion to princess. I mostly just rolled my eyes. Can you blame me? The show has bent over backwards to convince me that princesses are boring characters, and now my favoritest bestpony has joined their illustrious ranks. What do I have to look forward to, then? Is Twilight going to spend the rest of the series being smug and predictable? No thanks.
There were a lot of hints that season three was building up some metaplot, and that Twilight’s wings are only the first part of the payoff. Where the plot goes next will determine whether it was all worth it. Changing the status quo is a bold move, but only if the writers are willing to follow through with it. Rather than speculate on where those wings should take her, I’ll instead point to two places they shouldn’t.
First, it would be a shame for Twilight to become a shadow of Cadence the way Cadence became a shadow of Celestia. The last thing the show needs is a third boring princess. We already know the princesses are Twilight’s biggest role models, and that she aspires to be like them. What keeps her interesting is that she has a stable full of character flaws that prevent that. A calm, collected, and always-right Twilight Sparkle would kill the very heart of what makes her so much fun.
And second, it would be cowardly to revert to the status quo. If the first episode of season four is a two-part epic detailing how Twilight loses her wings and everything goes back to normal, I will kick and scream like a frustrated child.
#2: A musical episode with high-quality songs that flow naturally and tell the story. Magical Mystery Cure tried to be this episode, but it failed so spectacularly it’s almost unbelievable. One of the main criticisms of that episode is that it tries to stuff too much story into too little time. The most prevalent opinion on how to fix it is to make it into a two-parter. However, for the breakneck pace the plot has to move to squeeze everything in, the episode’s songs do a surprisingly small amount of work. What My Cutie Mark Is Telling Me and True True Friend (forgive me if these aren’t the songs’ actual titles) each contain a full verse for each of Twilight’s friends, and convey very little information about the action happening onscreen. It doesn’t help that the songs are also bad.
The idea of a fully musical episode has merit, but this wasn’t the way to do it. If the writers want to take another crack at it, they should watch See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey and take notes. They need to get away from the idea that they can work like a Disney movie, where the story alternates between story segments and musical showstoppers. You don’t have that luxury when you’re working inside a twenty-two minute box.
#3: An adventure episode where the goal is not “help Cadence”. Sorry to keep beating this drum, but Cadence is super-boring and I don’t believe her character is salvageable. It made sense that she was featured prominently in A Canterlot Wedding, but that really should have been the end of it; her inclusino in The Crystal Empire felt forced and unnecessary. Oh boo hoo, courageous and selfless Cadence, bestest princess ever, is so tired and weary of protecting the whole blah blah blah all by herself. Gag me. The fun parts of that episode were the same parts that were fun in the season one and two openers: the mane six being themselves in dangerous and exciting situations.
I like the adventure episodes. I don’t want to become more common, because I think they work best as an infrequent part of the overall tapestry. However, because they are uncommon, I feel like the show is in a rut where they are used as excuses to trot out the new mascot. Maybe they work better if you’re a fan of said mascot, but I’m not.
#4: A follow-up to Discord’s reformation. As already stated, I loved Keep Calm and Flutter On. I’m excited to see what the next chapter is. In this episode, Celestia stated that she had a use for Discord’s magic, if only he could be made to play nice. What was that use? And to what degree will Discord play along? And what role will Fluttershy have in all of that? I don’t think the writers would have opened this box unless they were going to pull something out of it, and I can’t wait to find out what.
Part of my fascination with this plot point, I confess, stems from years of playing D&D. The idea that chaos and evil are two distinct concepts is one that not a lot of fantasy literature likes to play with. Things are either nice and orderly and good, or they are dark and chaotic and evil… but that’s only half of what could theoretically be explored. That a mighty force of chaos could be good for Equestria is a great idea. I’m ready to see it in action.
#5: A straight-up Daring Do adventure. Why yes, I’m going to keep saying this every season until it happens. Why do you ask?
After completing Quantum Conundrum I was immediately ready for another game of that style. Not quite ready for more Quantum Conundrum, though, or I’d have dove into the DLC. And not quite ready to replay Portal, or I’d grabbed it off the shelf.
So I grabbed Antichamber instead.
Let’s get the graphics out of the way first: Antichamber barely has any. Looking at screenshots, or watching the YouTube trailer, you might not even recognize it as a game. It looks like someone’s homework assignment. Everything is stark contrast, straight lines, bright color. The most minimal of the minimalist. There are a few cool-looking rooms, and an art gallery area filled with nifty looking impossible shapes to look at (but not interact with)… but most of your play time will be spent staring at white hallways and white walls.
People will say the graphics work for the kind of game Antichamber is. People will say that the game wouldn’t have been the same without its unique visuals. I call bollocks on these people. For one, the visuals aren’t unique. It’s black lines on white paper. There is a threshhold at which bare-bones visuals are no longer distinct, and Antichamber is below it. And for another, well, M. C. Escher didn’t just draw impossible lines. He drew impossible objects. Looping stairways, tesselation gradients, and so on. There’s (theoretically) no reason Antichamber couldn’t have been set in a haunted mansion, or a dusty pyramid, or whatever. Instead, it’s a computer simulation. That’s what it looks like.
Well, okay, there’s one reason: Antichamber is designed to challenge and subvert your expectations about what a game is. It only wants you to succeed if you are able to second-guess every convention you’ve ever learned. It wants you outside of your comfort zone. The game does feel cold and clinical… discomforting, even. So it does work. It’s just, by my reckoning, it would have worked better if the “second-guess your conventions” convention were re-cast as, say, “it’s ghoooosts!”, and the hallways were creaky wood and cobwebs.
Make ye no mistake: “second-guess your conventions” is just a convention. It’s a gimmick. The best puzzles in Antichamber are designed so you have to forget what you know — or think you know — in order to advance. But then, so were the best puzzles in Portal, and Quantum Conundrum, and RHEM, and Ocarina of Time. It’s, ah, kind of the definition of the word “puzzle”, isn’t it? If a game challenge conforms exactly to your expectations, it isn’t a puzzle challenge. Antichamber is really no different.
It’s a little different. Just a bit. Before you can even start solving puzzles, you have to solve the world. The game is first-person, WASD-and-mouse (no gamepad support, tsk tsk). You can run and walk and jump. That much you know. But you are dropped into the game with no introduction, no motivation, no goal and no help. You set off into the maze, disoriented, and because you are disoriented, little things like changing hallways and endless staircases seem more confusing than they really are.
But Antichamber is not random. There are rules to how the world works, and once you learn them, the game is no longer discomforting. I won’t give any examples — finding out what they are is part of the puzzle, after all — but the game has an internal logic that can be unraveled.
Actually, I’ll give one example. Sometimes, a hallway or doorway will lead to two different places depending on whether you’ve turned to look back through it since you entered. You might turn left, walk to a dead end, then turn around and find a stairway leading up has materialized behind you. You know, Escher stuff.
Except none of these quasi-dimensional connections really, well, fit. They follow no logic, internal or otherwise. So, no, not Escher stuff. The walkways and drop-offs aren’t mapped to any clever, impossible topography… they’re simply impossible. They’re just coded to work the way they do. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s hub room. On one wall is a giant map of everywhere you’ve been. The map is just nodes and arrows. You click a node to warp immediately to the room it represents. Then, from anywhere in the maze, you press Esc to warp back to the hub.
That works brilliantly for navigation. It’s a great concession to gameplay. But it damages the sense of “impossible place” they were aiming for. There is no cohesive whole. There is no seventh-dimensional superstructure. It’s easy to make an impossible hallway if you cheat. I’ve done it in RPGMaker. Not a game-breaker by any means. Just disappointing.
As you wander around the world, learning how it works, you will make note of many locked doors. Doors are locked with configurations of colored cubes. At the end of your wandering you find a gun that can manipulate colored cubes. That gets you into a few doors. Later, you find a stronger gun that manipulates them differently. And on from there. The strongest gun opens the door leading to the exit. All very… conventional, really.
The gun/cube puzzles were mostly smart. There were some really clever ones, although none were as fun as simply working out what each new gun does in the first place. (Or learning to use an old trick in a new way.) Unfortunately the designers cheated here, as well, and most of the cube puzzles are set in piped grids in the walls. Find a door, look at the nearby piped grid, solve the puzzle, door opens. At this point the game is reduced to a series of what are essentially browser puzzles. Match the colors, arrange the grid, drag the line, block the laser. Very disappointing, considering how cerebral the initial “wander around an impossible place” phase of the game is.
Some of these cube/pipe/lock puzzles were very difficult. I rapped my knuckles on a few of them until I forced myself to step back and consider what I wasn’t seeing. Often, and truly, I was only able to succeed after letting go of my pre-conceptions of what the rules were. The theme of Antichamber, in other words, working as intended. Again, though, this is exactly how I solve the best puzzles in any well-designed game.
Is Antichamber a well-designed game, then? Well, sure. Just… incoherent. At first it’s a game about learning the rules to an impossible place. Then it’s a game about learning to manipulate cubes. Then it’s a game about solving stand-alone wall puzzles. Then it’s a game about… uh… whatever the hell the endgame was.
I enjoyed it, but I noticed all the spackle. Kind of hard not to, when you’re constantly stepping in it.
The game starts you with a timer. I don’t know what the timer starts at, because I didn’t notice until I had already wandered around a while and Esc’d back to the hub. Eventually the timer hit zero and nothing happened. Presumably something happens if you complete the game quickly enough. Or maybe that one un-openable door I found would have responded if I’d reached it in time. I’m not really motivated to replay the whole game just to find out, nor am I confident I could do it quickly enough. I guess a speed run mode in a puzzle game is a progressive idea, but it still baffles me.
A one-line review of Quantum Conundrum might be: “It tries really, really hard to be Portal. It’s not Portal, but doesn’t mean it isn’t good.” (And poking around the internet reading reviews, I see this is the case!)
Quantum Conundrum is a game about moving blocks. The gimmick is that you (usually) can’t move the blocks directly to where you need them. Instead, you alter the properties of your location — weight, time, gravity — in clever ways until the configuration is just so. Then you step through the door, get your fortune cookie joke, and move on to the next level. After forty-odd levels of this, the game ends and you go, “Good times! Felt kinda like Portal.”
It’s not really fair to keep dragging Portal out. Sorry about that. I don’t mean to say the game is plagiarised. It’s not a Portal level pack in a new skin. Instead, it feels like the first major installment in the genre Portal started.
Let’s talk about the main divergence Conundrum takes from the Portal formula. In Portal the puzzle is moving yourself through the world by connecting points in space. There are blocks, and switches, and paint, yes, but the main goal is creating a path for you. In Conundrum it’s all about creating, altering and positioning the blocks in each level. You’re still forging a path, but the path is made up of the physical properites of the blocks you use to build it. The big question in Portal is always, “How do I get up there?” The big question in Conundrum is, “What do I do with all this stuff?”
Still physics puzzles, then. But physics puzzles of a different sort. And while there is some overlap in puzzle design between the two games, the boundaries are nonetheless clearly delineated.
The Portal bell is rung a few other ways, too. You have the disembodied helper voice to egg you along through the puzzles. You have color-coded magic power buttons, which represent core gameplay elements, unlocked as the game goes on. You have silly, overblown names for common objects. You have the skewed worship of science. Hmm… no mention of cake, now that I think about it. I guess there’s blatant, and then there’s blatant.
The humor is very different. I don’t want to say it’s “younger”, although it is — the mute avatar is a young boy, and each game over points out another thing he won’t be able to experience now that he’s dead — I want to say it’s more whimsical. Portal was a black comedy, while Conundrum is a Saturday morning cartoon. Both are well-written, well-acted and funny. Conundrum veers maybe a little too far towards corny, at times, but that’s the target they were shooting for. It works nicely.
Throughout Conundrum you are accompanied via intercom by Crazy Uncle Whozits, voiced expertly by John de Lancie. Your uncle is sometimes patronizing, sometimes deprecating, but nonetheless offers a measure of concern for your situation, including kudos where they’re appropriate. (Never got that from GLADoS, I’ll admit!) This is also how the story is delivered; faceless voice-overs between levels, with small revelations spattered here and there. The story isn’t actually very compelling, but then neither was Portal‘s, nor any other physics-puzzle game worth playing.
Uncle Whatnose also delivers hints whenever he thinks you’re stuck — often quite rudely. (“Maybe you should try going… higher? Hint hint?”) This is a nice little system and I’m sure it helped a lot of players along through the learning curve, but I wished I could have shut them off. Or, at least, I wish the old bastard would wait until I’ve started to play with stuff before chiming in with sardonic nudging. I take a methodical approach to games like this. I like to enter an area and identify all the moving pieces before I start throwing switches and hurling boxes around. The end result, in my case, was that Ol’ Uncle Pantsface often started dropping clues just about the time I’d finished making my rounds. Since I’m good at these kinds of games, that usually meant he was literally describing the action I was taking, or was bout to take. It was annoying.
Weirdly, in the one or two cases I was really stuck, the hints weren’t of any help. They were either too vague, or too abstract. Oh well. I figured it out anyway.
Puzzle design is the one aspect which could forgive any other sin the game could possibly commit. And the puzzles were great. The game gives you four magic powers, and then gives you lots and lots of fun things to do with those powers. There are lots of spots where your initial reaction to a room will be, “How the hell am I going to do this!?” And then two minutes later you’re on your way. That’s a good feeling.
Well, that’s how it is when the game is on form, anyway. There are a lot of hiccups along the way. The same sort of hiccups as any other game with physics puzzles, actually. Certainly the same sort of hiccups Portal had, when it made you play with boxes. On one hand, you have this persistent world with realistic-ish physics. Things move and rotate, bounce and crash, fall and fly just about how you’d expect them to. On the other hand, the puzzles are all based around precision. You need this box to land there, or go in that direction. The end result is, you spend quite a lot of time trying to finagle the game into working the way you want it to.
Sometimes the game tries to help you out, although it does so inconsistently. For example, there is a type of platform you use to launch boxes into the air. Whenever you set a box on this platform, it snaps into place. Whether you’re throwing the box somewhere useful, or riding it yourself, or whatever, you are assured it will do what it’s supposed to, because the game has already nudged it into position.
But then there is another type of platform, a circular button you need to weigh down. Boxes don’t snap to these, so sometimes you’ll go through a series of convoluted actions, miss the destination by two degrees, and fail. And this is to say nothing of situations where you have to place or stack blocks yourself. I was stuck in one room for nearly twenty minutes, not because I couldn’t figure out what to do, but because the box I was riding kept clipping on part of the scenery and getting knocked askew.
The feedback in these situations is reasonable. Usually, when things feel really rocky or wobbly, it’s because you’re approaching the problem in the wrong way. Nonetheless there were several spots where I ran the same sequence of actions several times just to be sure my initial idea wasn’t going to work. And there were a few times where my initial idea was correct, but failed on my first try, leading me to believe I was on the wrong track when I wasn’t.
I wouldn’t want to be the guy tasked with solving this problem. If every puzzle were as neat and tidy as the snap-to bouncy platforms, most of the elegence of the puzzles would be destroyed. At the same time, though, I don’t think it’s fair to penalize the player for solving a puzzle at a very-slightly-incorrect angle.
Oh, and let us not forget the other aspect of quirky physics puzzles: jumping! Jumping in first-person games has never worked, ever, because you can’t see where your feet are. Most first-person games have the good sense to not be the kind of games that require you to know where your feet are, but Quantum Conundrum doesn’t have that good sense, so prepare yourself to fall into a lot of pits. Lots and lots of puzzles require you to jump to or from precarious ledges, often while they are moving through space, sometimes with very little time to plan and angle your jump. Some levels require you to guide a box through a gauntlet of lasers and solid scenery, the bulk of which resides outside of your field of vision, and yes, slightly clipping that pipe you thought you’d clear (because you misjudged, because you can’t see your feet or the box they’re on) means a death and a retry. Why did you ask?
There are a variety of reasons jumping around in Portal was never — okay, seldom — frustrating. There’s no need to go into any of the tricks they used, though, because Conundrum doesn’t use them. You jump, you hope for the best. Sometimes it’s not clear whether you can make a jump or not. Sometimes you have to make jumps you’d swear aren’t make-able. Sometimes you jump, miss the platform, and have just enough time to hear Uncle Crazybutt congratulate you before the game over screen chips in.
The lousy jumping, and the wodgy physics, conspired to ruin many of the puzzles for me. Please understand the distinction, here: the puzzles themselves were fine. And solving them was fun. But once I solved them, it often took several tries to implement the solution. And that isn’t fun. The time between the moment you figure out the solution, and the moment you finally get where you’re going, is totally wasted. It is maddening to know, in my heart of hearts, that I would succeed at my task if the goddamn game would just get out of my way.
To Conundrum‘s credit, it always did, eventually. This aspect of the game was never so bad that I wanted to quit playing it.
I found the game to be pretty easy, which was a little disappointing because most of what I’d read led me to believe it would be more challenging. Which isn’t to say there’s no challenge. Just… I was expecting a torrent and instead got a strong drizzle. I still have the two DLC chapters to play; maybe those have more teeth.
Last thing worth mentioning: the loading time in this game sucks. I don’t mean that it’s too invasive or that there is too much of it. I mean it sucks. Look, I can appreciate that the designers didn’t want to stick big, obtrusive loading bars overtop of their persistent world. But what they did instead just doesn’t work. They try to mask the load times by having you walk through long hallways between each level, often punctuated by amusing Uncle banter. But then the game locks up, hangs, stutters, chokes just as you reach the door. Every level begins with forty seconds of herk-jerk wiggle-the-sticks-until-it’s-smooth-again. The first time this happened to me I thought the game had crashed, so I restarted it. The second time it happened I thought I should probably turn down some of the graphics settings. The third time it happened I realized it was just a thing I would have to put up with.
This was on the PC version, by the way. Maybe the console versions are smoother, I don’t know.
After playing Portal, I remember thinking that was the kind of game that defines a genre. Like Doom, or Street Fighter II — not the first game of its type, but the first one that is so good that every similar game takes its conventions and recasts them. I feel like Quantum Conundrum is the next level. It’s not as perfect as Portal — what game is? — but it scratches exactly the same kind of itch. I want another game like this every year, please, for the rest of my life. Maybe a tad harder, and with less jumping.
It was called… uh… Something Something Madoka Magica, and it was recommended to me by a dude whose tastes I generally trust. The recommendation came with a foreboding disclaimer: I was to reserve judgment until I’d seen three full episodes. No other information was presented, presumably because my friend didn’t want to ruin the surprise. I inferred that the series was going to start out like any other magical girl anime, and then at some point in the third episode would become… something else. It was an intriguing prospect.
I’m not going to be as kind to you, because if I don’t spoil the twist I can’t write this post. So if you don’t want Madoka Magica spoiled for you, don’t read past this paragraph. This isn’t really a review of the show, per se, but rather a description of what I think it was trying to do, and why I think it failed.
This is still a kinda sorta review, though, and because I believe in providing an adequate spoiler buffer, I will point out the one thing that I liked: the animation during the magical fight sequences displayed more imagination than I honestly thought the modern anime industry was capable of producing. It’s not just the design of the monsters and battlefields; it’s that everything about the drawing style and art direction is totally upended in order to create something absolutely deranged and beautiful. In fact, I liked this aspect of the show so much I’m motivated to go get a screengrab:
Nice. I would play that, if it were a PlayStation game. Hmm… actually, with 100+ hours invested in Persona 3, maybe I already have done. It’s really, really cool-looking, is my point. Okay, end of buffer.
In the way of spoilers, here’s the plot synopsis for the first three episodes of Madoka Magica. Episode one: a typical Japanese teenager and her best friend wander into a sort of magical nether-dimension and are almost killed by witches. They are rescued by a Sailor Moon expy and her adorable furry ghost-cat, and learn that not only are magical girls real, but they can be magical too! Episode two: Sailor Moon lays out the rules of being a magical girl: ghost-cat will grant each of the friends one wish, and in return, they get magic weapons and have to join the fight against witches. Meanwhile, a mysterious transfer student attempts to warn them against this strange and wonderful world of magical superheroes. Episode three: the two friends tag along with Sailor Moon on a few more fantastic adventures, and watch in horror as she is gobbled up by a clown monster.
Ah, okay, so there’s the rub. Madoka isn’t really a magical girl anime, but a deconstruction of the genre. Of course nobody expects magical girls to actually get killed in the line of duty. Hundreds of examples exist of anime and manga where fighting evil with flashy swords and transformation sequences is treated as a big game. This story, then, is going to be an exploration of magical girls involved in a real conflict, in which there is real danger and real stakes. Every aspect of the typical magical girl show is examined and rationalized, often in ways that are refreshingly cruel. The bits that can’t be properly lampshaded are instead subverted. By the time you’re six episodes in, and you’re thoroughly convinced that becoming a magical girl is the worst fate imaginable, our hapless heroine begins to learn why she might have no choice but to accept.
It’s a fresh concept, and a good story. I enjoy stories where circumstances start out bad and then get worse and worse. And then, when things can’t get any worse, the bottom falls out and “worse” starts happening on a whole new axis. And I’ll admit, I was charmed to see someone taking the piss out of what I consider to be one of the lamest and most insipid genres of anime available. The pieces were in place and I should have enjoyed Madoka. It became clear why my friend thought I would enjoy it.
But I didn’t enjoy it. Madoka nailed the concept but botched the execution. For a show that constantly and violently reminded you that it wasn’t your bog-standard magical girl anime, it sure as hell conducted itself like one.
Let’s tick down the list. Uninspired art style, complete with side-mouths, pointy dot-noses, candy hair, and big glassy eyes instead of actual expression? Check. Long, meandering conversations about the Importance of Friendship and Being Good and Doing Your Best, played totally straight? Check. Melodramatic backstory baggage attached to every single character? Double check. Fantasy plot that gets so twisty and convoluted that no resolution is possible except a spray of metaphysical bullshit? Checkmate.
The bit about heaping on the melodrama is is particularly bad, as I’m sure that by indulging in the dark, tragic pasts of our heroines the writers thought they were avoiding some number of peppy, saccharine magical girl tropes. Nope! Replacing one bad trope with another means you’re replacing a problem, not solving it. And having a character wonder, out loud, whether she is moe does not remove the queasiness of watching an anime where the characters are, in fact, moe.
Here’s a deep dark secret of mine: the reason I have an aversion to magical girl anime has nothing to do with a distaste for magical girl stories. I could watch a show about cute high school girls fighting crime with big smiles and lollipop swords if one came along that completely scuttled the melodrama, the pretension, and the pandering. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing addition to the genre? If the girls dealt with more interesting personal issues than which boys are dreamboats this week? If they could be defined in ways outside of their hair color, weapon choice and One Single Personality Trait? If the art direction had some integrity to it, and weren’t just cobbled together from the back of How to Draw Manga?
If you gave Madoka a dollar every time it did something cool or interesting, but took away two for each gratutious behind-the-butt shot and slow motion teardrop, you’d have paid off your school loans by the end of the series. When it comes to magical girl adventures, Madoka changes the contents but keeps the packaging — and it’s the packaging I found objectionable in the first place.
I think there is still life in this concept, in case someone else out there wants to take another swing at it. I’d give something along the lines of Madoka another glance if it actually did something to address the melodrama and the fanservice. Or at least added a really kickass battle system.
Now that I’ve played a season’s worth of Mouse Guard with my gaming gruop, I figured I’d revisit this blog post about the rulebook and see whether those old comments still held water. A quick summary: my group tends to go really heavy on the roleplay, and I didn’t think a really nuts-and-bolts game like Mouse Guard would go over well with them. I felt a lot of the structure of the game was arbitrary or nonsensical; the kind of stuff that causes players to ask, “Why can’t I do this?” and GMs to answer, “Just because.”
There are a lot of really good roleplaying tools built into the system, but most of the mechanics require the players to approach the system as a game and not necessarily as a world their characters can interact with. What’s worse, the system doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room to chock those restrictive mechanics aside.
This ended up being exactly true, although not the dealbreaker I was expecting. There was some rolling of eyes as the game mechanics were laid out, but the players were mostly willing to accept the rules for what they were and displayed decent aptitude for sticking to them… even the stuff that didn’t make logical sense.
My biggest issue with this aspect of the game is how utterly contrasty it is. Mouse Guard has all these roleplaying concepts cooked right into the broth, but so much of the game forces you to abandon motive and abide cards and dice instead. I’ve known and loved games that lean to one extreme or the other, but Mouse Guard tries to tear itself in half. One moment it’s “ignore the story, what do the cards say?” and the next it’s “ignore the cards, what fits your character?” My players never really got the hang of shifting gears so abruptly, and I can’t say I blame them.
In Mouse Guard, character creation is structured as a series of questions. The GM goes down the list and the entire group (called a “patrol”) answers at once.
This was a mixed blessing. On one hand, character creation is really speedy and organic — think in terms of what your character is, and record that on the sheet, yeah? On the other, the process doesn’t leave a lot of space for fine-tuning. Example: the first thing you do is pick your mouse’s hometown. You are told to select one Skill and one Trait associated with your hometown. This is fine, but most towns only have a single Trait to “choose” from. That’s pretty unfairly restrictive. Several of my players wanted their mouse to be from a town that matched his or her backstory, but didn’t want to be saddled with the Trait the book gave them.
Mulling this around a bit, and comparing it to more standard point-buy systems, I honestly don’t see any real benefit. I’ve rolled up dozens of White Wolf characters over the years and I have never had any trouble arranging my points to fit a particular character concept. And when it comes right down to it, Mouse Guard is still a point-buy system. Every step of the process boils down to, “What did your mouse’s mentor in the guard stress during training? Choose three of the below skills.” Things would have been smoother if the invisible barriers had been removed and players were free to spend where they wanted.
Once you have your skills and such, you level them up by actually using them. Each skill has checkboxes next door to notate passes and failures. Passing a skill test represents getting better with practice; failure imparts important lessons. Both are required to get to the next level.
I feel like this worked really well, although the bookkeeping took some getting used to. I was running with a larger-than-average group, and there was no way I was going to be keeping track in my notes. This led to situations where players forgot to notate a pass or fail until long after it was relevant. Some of the players got into it, though, and by the end of the third session they seemed to be policing themselves.
One benefit of this system I didn’t consider at first was the psychological impact of small, constant rewards. Lots of skill checks per session means lots of little boxes to fill in, pass or fail. Each little bell and whistle is fun and exciting. Many RPGs don’t grant rewards of any kind during a game session, so this was a win.
The rest of your rewards all come through good roleplaying. Over the course of the game you stack up Fate and Persona points, which can be cashed in to improve rolls. You gain these points by staying true to several aspects of your mouse’s personality: his Belief, Goal and Instinct. … At the end of each session the group discusses everyone’s roleplaying and, if you’ve done well, you get points.
This is one of those things that sounds great on paper, but gets really messy if you have players at different levels of roleplaying aptitude. It’s a strange paradox: a skilled roleplayer will pick an exciting Belief that is challenging to play, and thus won’t get rewarded every session. A less-skilled roleplayer will pick a broader Belief that is much easier to play, and thus gets the reward more consistently. As a GM, this is a sticky fucking wicket. If your Belief is “It is good to do good things,” and you do some good things, should I reward you? Even if the guy sitting next to you went with “The pursuit of knowledge is the highest virtue of mousekind”? If he spends the whole session striving to uphold that Belief, and fails, which of you really deserves the gold star?
Goals were equally challenging. Some players picked the most straightforward Goal imaginable; something that was almost guaranteed to happen by the end of the session. The players who created more thoughtful Goals requiring more effort to complete really didn’t accomplish anything except risk failure. Player 1 writes, “I will help the patrol deliver the message to the town.” Player 2 writes, “I will learn something new and exciting about the nature of the scent border.” Player 1 can sleepwalk to the reward. Player 2 has to go out of his way, and might fail. Both players are adhering to the rules, though, so I can’t call attention to the disparity without hurting someone’s feelings.
Compounding the problem is that there is a strong correlation between a player’s ability and willingness to roleplay, and a player’s ability to accept failure as a natural consequence. Creative players who didn’t quite hit their stated targets were fine when they didn’t get their shinies. Players with less creative targets got defensive when I challenged them to explain why they deserved theirs, and got upset in the rare cases when they were denied.
This problem creeps into any game that expects a level of imagination from its players. The only cure I know of is to remove the imagination requirement entirely. In Mouse Guard this might mean actually supplying a list of Beliefs, Instincts and Goals to choose from, with a blue box inviting players to come up with their own.
And, of course, since half of the game is strictly mechanical anyway, it stands to reason there should be strictly mechanical rewards as well. That is, something players can plug into an equation. “I helped kill x weasels, I get y gold pieces.” Mouse Guard doesn’t track that sort of reward, though. This creates a weird gap when players who excel at the roleplaying challenges get bonuses but players who excel at dice-and-cards do not.
The idea is that the GM’s Turn is the mission proper, where the patrol encounters obstacles, gets into fights, works towards their goals, etc. The Players Turn takes up the in-between spots where there is downtime; it’s used to rest and recuperate, obtain supplies, tie up dangling sidequests, etc.
This aspect of the game was a total failure. As much as the book wants to pretend that the players are ever in control, they never really are. Even in the Player’s Turn, a player is limited by the amount of checks s/he has, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the gamestate and “solve” the Player’s Turn. I very purposely left loose ends at the end of every GM’s Turn, hoping the players would pick up where I left off. This is how the book describes it, and this is what other Mouse Guard players told me to do. It didn’t work. It always devolved into, “Okay, we have this many checks. We need to do this many things. We have to cure this many conditions. We do this and this and this and this, in this and this and this order.”
It’s another symptom of the game tearing itself apart. From a roleplaying standpoint, going around the table spending checks should be a really fun process that helps to grow the story outward from where the GM left it. Mechanically, though, when your mouse has two conditions and you have exactly three checks, “organically growing the adventure” no longer looks like a viable option. Even less so when the guy sitting next to you failed the test to cure his Injured, and you’re hurting the party if you don’t give him your spare.
“So we were in town for three days. During that time they were able to eat, get drunk, hire a cartographer and restock their ammo. But you’re telling me I had so little time I had to choose between getting a good night’s sleep and getting my spear repaired?”
Yeah, speaking of those Conditions. Since Mouse Guard doesn’t have a traditional health system, wear and tear is represented by the effective equivalent of status ailments. These are doled out as consequences for failed roles or lost conflicts, and the book goes to great lengths to explain how important and effective they are. I think at one point it literally states, “Conditions are awesome.”
Conditions are not awesome. I gave out lots and lots of conditions over the course of the game, and no player was ever glad to get one. Getting rid of them is just a chore you do on the Player’s Turn, and they don’t even make narrative sense. One of my players was stuck with Tired for three sessions. I kept telling him, “You just can’t seem to get a good night’s sleep,” but what he kept hearing was, “You have a bad card and there is not much you can do about it right now.”
Just another example of a roleplaying game trying to play by board game rules. They helped balance the dice out but they never added to the story.
The secret to “combat” in games like this, though, is that as long as it flows quickly and gets the job done it sort of doesn’t matter how well it works. … I might have to just write up another post about it once I’ve seen the system in action.
The conflict rules (which incorporate combat, negotiations, long journeys through the wilderness, and so-forth) are the most choice examples of Mouse Guard shedding all vestiges of being a roleplaying game. They involve splitting the players and NPC opponents into teams, and having each team select three Action Cards each round. The cards resolve against each other in a quasi-RPS manner, numbers go up or down on either side, and then the whole thing starts over. Once everyone understands the rules it works really, really well; a bit like resolving a hand of Magic: The Gathering or a war in Risk. It is, after all, a game.
That’s my big problem with it, though. The conflict system works equally well whether you roleplay with it or not. “We try to negotiate with the bad guy.” “Okay, play three cards then roll these dice. You lose two Disposition. Now play three more cards.” You can resolve entire combat scenes or weeks of travel that way.
In fact, attempting to inject roleplaying into the scene just muddies up the issue. Say you play an Attack card and then roll really well. Awesome! You therefore declare that you’ve swept your sword in a wide arc, stunning your opponent with the flat of your blade and sending him reeling to the floor! Exciting!
…except the opponent’s next card reads Attack, and you say, “Wait a minute, why should he be able to attack me after I just knocked him down? Isn’t he equipped with a knife? I should be out of range! That doesn’t make any sense.”
Of course it doesn’t, but cards is cards. You have to do what they say. My players didn’t like hearing that.
That’s the biggest difference between combat in Mouse Guard and combat in, well, anything else, really. In other games you declare your action, then use the dice to determine the result. Succeed or fail, the action itself is all you. Your imagination. Your idea. Your response, in fact, to the current state of the game world. The dice are the medium, but you are the message. In Mouse Guard, the cards are the action, and the description only comes afterwards. An afterthought. And since each three-card play occurs in a vacuum, there’s not even really a game state to consider.
I can’t say there is no strategy; my players were combining their three actions in novel ways by the end of the last session, so that each mouse played up to his or her strengths. That’s commendable, but it’s not the same thing as considering a real-world scene and then imagining what sorts of things would work within that scene.
In the end, I think my group had a reasonable amount of fun with Mouse Guard, but everyone had to put up with a lot of hassle to eke that fun out. They (and I) enjoyed the roleplaying bits, and also enjoyed the game-y bits, but the system is just not designed for the two halves to blend together very well. Sad to say, but I don’t know that we’ll be revisiting it anytime soon.
I haven’t been keeping up on Sonic news. Is the Sonic Cycle still turning? Sonic the Hedgehog 4 was certainly lamentable, and while Sonic Colors was bad I definitely had a bit of fun with it. Enough fun, in fact, that I didn’t mind picking up Sonic Generations when it was released last year. I had more pressing games on my plate at the time, though, so I didn’t do much with it other than burn up the levels and see the end credits. I didn’t bother writing a post about it because I didn’t think I’d have anything to say that I hadn’t already said about Colors: “Sloppy and dumb, but good clean fun.”
I think my initial assessment of Generations was incorrect. I’ve spent the past three days digging back into it, and I’m convinced the game is legit good. Colors was a hot mess that reached into your brain and plucked your Pleasure Neurons so fast you didn’t have time to notice that the game was a jumble of dumb ideas and poorly-designed stage layouts. Generations is a quality game that adequately celebrates the history of a beloved gaming mascot without overreaching its station.
Once in a while I get a sudden, powerful urge to play some goddamn Sonic. I’m not what you’d call a “Sonic fan”, but I do have some nostalgia for the old Genesis games, and I like to revisit them from time to time. Here’s what happened last time the urge struck me. I reached for Generations this time because I had left a so much of it unplayed. Lots of little challenge levels still to go, lots of stuff to unlock, lots of red shinies to find. I was expecting to be sated after maybe an hour or two of running around Chemical Plant, but when I glanced up at the clock I realized I’d been playing for six hours. Yikes.
(Incidentally, the reason I reached for Generations and not Colors is I have no desire to play with the Wiimote what I can play with a sensible controller. I wonder if, subconciously, this is why I haven’t gone back to replay either of the Mario Galaxy games.)
Part of what makes Sonic Generations so good is its structure. There are nine zones, each nicked from one of the nine games chosen to represent Sonic’s illustrious vidjamagame history. Each zone is broken into two acts. Act 1 is “classic Sonic”, and plays just like the old Genesis games. This version of Sonic has a spin dash, but no homing attack, and is confined to a 2d plane. The gameplay focuses on precision platforming amidst lots of moving parts, interspersed with speeding segments. It’s very important to make the distinction between “classic Sonic” and “modern Sonic in 2d”. There is no boosting and no daisy chains of monsters to zoom off of. The stages are not structured like roller coasters, and you do not earn points by doing tricks. They do not work off of Sonic 4′s abysmal physics. They are HD versions of Genesis levels, with all the glow and grime that statement entails.
Act 2 is “modern Sonic”, which means the gameplay was lifted from Colors, more or less. Modern Sonic games are split up between 2d platforming sections, 3d ride-the-line sections and gimmicky sub-games where the player is expected to perform some weird, un-Sonic-like action. I haven’t played a modern Sonic game outside of Colors, but judging from reviews and comments and gripes dating back to the Dreamcast days, I get the sense that the third thing has done the most work to tarnish Sonic’s reputation. Before I delve into that I will simply say that the modern-style 2d segments are quite fun (and, as mentioned, distinct from the classic-style segments), and that the 3d segments are cleanly designed and have good flow. This contrasts with the 3d segments from Colors, which flowed about as well as a tangle of Christmas lights.
It’s the gimmickry that always made me shake my head. Whenever I would read about how Sonic games made you play as characters nobody cares about, two thoughts would occur to me. First, knowingly plays a Sonic game to spend half the time as, say, Bigs the Cat? Isn’t Sonic kind of the bloody point of the thing? Even in the old games, Tails and Knuckles were just Sonic clones. The core gameplay didn’t change with the color of your spinning ball. And second, doesn’t it mean the developers are spending resources on non-Sonic stuff that could be better used to polish up the core gameplay? The old Sonic games were good because they were tight. The ideas behind that early gameplay were so simple that you couldn’t help but build to their strengths. Dumping more and more concepts into the pot couldn’t possibly improve the flavor, and years of poor review scores seem to bear this out.
Colors handled its gimmickry by shelving the hangers-on and instead giving Sonic temporary abilities in the form of alien gumball capsules. Pick up a pink one and you can roll along walls and ceilings. The brown one, and you can drill through the ground. These were different enough to shock you out of the standard Sonic gameplay, and just frequent enough to annoy you when they popped up. They added something to the game, but I can’t honestly say they were fun in and of themselves. If the rest of the game had been the same quality as Generations they would have bothered me more.
Generations solves the problem by cleaving the gimmickry off into stand-alone challenge levels. Ten for each zone — five each for classic and modern Sonic — in addition to the two complete acts. These levels have you practicing new moves, using new items, or teaming up with one of Sonic’s friends to complete a unique challenge. This last thing is handled rather elegantly; rather than assuming direct control of a character you don’t care about (because s/he isn’t Sonic), you simply push a button to summon them and activate their special ability. These challenges vary wildly in quality and composition, but in the end they succeed in exactly the spots where former Sonic gimmickry failed: they’re short, they don’t break up the main levels, and they’re optional. A player who just wants to make Sonic run and bounce and swing doesn’t have to pay Charmy Bee so much a a sidewards glance.
There are minor bits of gimmickry in the main levels, but only to the extent that gimmickry was also present in the game the level was originally lifted from. City Escape has skateboarding segments because it wouldn’t be an accurate re-creation of the Sonic Adventure 2 level if they’d been excluded. Planet Wisp works in the magic powers from Sonic Colors by including only one of them: the orange rocket. Which, as it happens, is the most intuitive and most satisfying ability from that game. These decisions were made very carefully, to bring the flavor of the original levels to life without straying overmuch from the core Generations gameplay. At no point did someone point to a section of Sky Sanctuary and say, “Right here, we need the player to be Knuckles and punch through a bunch of walls.”
In addition to the challenges, each act has five red star rings to collect. Hunting these doodads is what caused me to really notice the thought that went into the design of each level. I have never had a high opinion of the exploration aspect of Sonic games. I’ve played four of the nine games represented in Generations, and all of them struggled with the duality of hiding secrets in stages you’re supposed to memorize and then blaze through at top speed. I did scour every level of Sonic 3 & Knuckles searching for the hidden bonus stages, but methodically climbing every wall and flying over every loop doesn’t trigger fond memories. Meanwhile, the stages in Colors were so chaotic that I couldn’t imagine being able to define their boundaries, let alone find the hidden whatsits. But man, hunting for red rings in Generations brought me to that same warm, happy place as hunting for DK Coins or walled-up super missiles.
The first reason is so simple I can’t believe it never occured to me in previous Sonic titles: there’s a built-in hint system. One of Sonic’s buddies is stationed outside of every zone entrance, and talking to them reveals the location of one of the red rings. I don’t mean they give you a vague clue; I mean they outright tell you, “do this, like this, at this spot”. The levels are big enough that the hint still requires some interpretation, but varied enough that when Espio mentions “the second wall-jump” you will know just what he’s talking about.
Of course, half the challenge is in the execution. These are still Sonic levels, which means you’ll spot an alternate path 0.2 seconds after it’s too late to take it. This was a major problem in the Genesis games because you couldn’t replay finished levels, so only expert players who have the whole game memorized will get everything on a normal playthrough. Colors allowed you to replay stages, but they were so scattershot that even if you noticed a path you might not be able to take it consistently. This is the second thing Generations did to make the treasure hunting fun. Each act is pretty big, but breaks down into individual sections. Within each section there are generally two or three paths to take, but the paths converge at the start of the next section. There are no situations where missing a crucial jump on the first rail grind locks you into an unrewarding bottom route for an entire act. If the area you need to search is 80% of the way through the level, you can play that first 80% as sloppily as you like. And if the area you need is right up front, you can pick “start over” from the pause menu to restart the level immediately, without having to kill yourself or finish the stage.
(One caveat: restarting uses up an extra life, and the game doesn’t let you do it if you’re on your last life. That’s stupid, but in that case dying and restarting with a full stock is functionally identical and still takes less time than finishing or exiting the level. I would have preferred a “restart from last goalpost” option, myself.)
I did begin the process of collecting red rings in Sonic Colors, but I gave up after a few stages. Collecting anything as small as a red ring is tricky even in a slowly-paced 3d game, and that problem is compounded in a game about high speed and bad controls. Remember painstakingly aiming the cannons in Super Mario 64 to collect airborne stars? Yeah, like that, except the object you’re aiming for is half the size and your dude moves five times as fast. I expected Generations to be just as hostile, but it’s not. Half of the red rings are in the classic acts, after all, which means nice friendly 2d platforming. The majority of the red rings in the modern acts are in line-following sections where Sonic’s position is fixed. The challenge is to find and land on the grind rail in the first place, and then the ring is situated at the end. I think of thirty-five modern red rings I’ve collected so far, there have only been two that were ruined due to shoddy 3d controls. One was halfway through a weirdly-angled jump; the other was in a sidepath during a chase sequence that I managed to keep running past. While annoying, I don’t think either took me more than three tries to finally collect.
In addition to clearing challenges and finding hidden shinies, you have the challenge of scoring S-Ranks in eact act. I’ve never been good at completing Sonic stages super quickly; I simply don’t have the reflexes for it. However, by the time I’d collected all five rings in an act I knew the stage well enough that S-Rank was well within my reach. It helps that the time requirements for S-Rank are actually achievable by mere mortals, rather than only speedrunners and YouTube gods. (One of the reasons I’m no longer on speaking terms with Mario Kart.)
The game does have two blemishes, one rather nasty, and one merely perplexing. The boss fights are all rather bad, not for being too difficult or poorly-designed, but merely for lousy conveyance. Sonic boss fights usually involve lots of running, and the goal is to figure out when during the chase you can strike and deal damage. I don’t think there is a boss in the game I didn’t learn to damage by accident, and it was usually obvious what I had to do after I stumbled into the solution, but that doesn’t quite make up for the twenty boring minutes of running and dodging I had endured. The final boss in particular was inexcusable. All of Sonic’s friends chatter constantly throughout the battle, but not a single is even the slightest help. There is no feedback whatsoever that anything you’re doing works. Actually, there is quite a bid of feedback that doing the right thing doesn’t work, because you have to do it for a very long time for it to have any effect. You will be stuck on this fight for ages, but I guarantee you it won’t be for lack of ability to spot incoming homing shots. Christ.
Then you have the game’s skill system. Both Sonics can complete challenges and collect red rings in order to make new skills available at the in-game shop. These skills can then be equipped in sets, either amplifying what the Sonics can already do or giving them new moves altogether. For example, the elemental shields that defined Sonic 3 & Knuckles‘s gameplay are all upgrades you buy in the store. The problem is, each upgrade has a point value, and Sonic can only equip 100 points worth of upgrades. Most of the truly unique ones — the ones that really change the way the game is played — cost 60 or 70 points. So you don’t get to really customize your Sonic so much as you equip one cool skill and then a couple of less essential nickle-and-dime ones. Faster running speed and an extended boost gauge are helpful, but you don’t really notice them as you play. Some are just flat out pointless; I rolled my eyes pretty hard when the red rings from Seaside Hill earned me faster wall jumps. Plus, the interface to customize and equip skill sets is clumsy as all hell, which is pretty strong disincentive to experiment with different combinations in the first place. Oh, and you can’t bring skills with you into the challenge levels, where they would be most useful. This feature feels like it was tacked on to an otherwise completed game. I won’t say it added nothing to the experience, but it could have used a bit more simmering.
One other little hiccup is the zones themselves. The selection of them, I mean. I guess this was a hard judgment call; there’s only room in the game for nine zones, and there have been way more than nine Sonic games. Wat do? They tried to break it down into three separate “eras” of Sonic: Genesis, Dreamcast, and… uh… everything-since-Dreamcast. A noble effort, but it doesn’t really jive with the two-Sonic-style the game is designed around because the Dreamcast games aren’t appreciably different from the modern ones. Not in the same way the 16-bit games are different, I mean. Since you control two Sonics, this splits the game 3-6 in favor of modern levels, which didn’t sit well with me. I mean, I can understand why you’d want to count Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles as a single entity. And I get why you might want to just forget that Sonic 3D Blast exists. But Sonic CD wasn’t worth its own level? Did we really need an urban level from each of the Sonic Adventure games? Then there’s the troublesome modern era, where no matter which three games you pick you’re going to be stuck with two bad ones (plus Colors).
I realize that this is highly subjective, and that no two Sonic players are going to be able to agree on which nine zones should have made the cut. However, one of the primary goals of Generations was to celebrate Sonic’s 20th birthday, and it does that by first remixing your very fond Genesis memories and then gradually mangling them with visions of Sonic ’06 and Sonic Unleashed. It’s like the series is degrading in front of you in real time. Maybe they could have mixed the stages up a little? Start out with an easy, forgettable zone from Sonic ’06, and place Sonic 1‘s trickier (and far superior) Star Light Zone towards the end? In any event, one thing Sega and I apparently agree on is that Sonic 4 doesn’t deserve to be celebrated to any extent. Heh heh.
Let’s see, what else. Oh! Music! My god, the music in this game is awesome. Each zone is comprised of three remixes of old tracks: a retro-style song for classic Sonic, an updated song for modern Sonic, and a short orchestrated loop for the level select screen. In addition, clearing challenges and collections nets you more and more songs for your jukebox, which can be played during any level. I tell you, laying the Marble Zone music over Crisis City Act 1 was sublime. (Yeah, yeah, Lava Reef would have been better. But I haven’t found it yet.) And all those old, bad, cheesy vocal tracks? The awful poppy buttrock you can’t help but love for being so damn upbeat? They’re all here. Setting the final boss to Super Sonic Racing makes the fight almost halfway tolerable.
I don’t think I need to mention the story. Whatever melodramatic nonsense Sonic Team thought their cartoon hedgehog needed, they’d gotten it out of their system by the time Colors rolled around. There are a few cute scenes with most of the cast, but you can ignore and/or skip them. Just like the old good Sonic games, Generations is all about the levels.
I feel pretty good about recommending Sonic Generations. I don’t know if it broke the Sonic Cycle, or just made it wobble a bit, but it is a damn fine game and a worthy celebration of the highs and lows of one of gaming’s most tumultuous series. If you’ve been holding off on playing it for fear it’s as disappointing as the last dozen games, you needn’t worry. It’s $30 on Steam, maybe less if you find it used at GameStop, and that’s a fair price for equal helpings of nostalgia and solid, speedy gameplay.
As for me, I’ve got six more red rings to find in Rooftop Run, then it’s off to Planet Wisp. Wish me luck.
I try to leave politics off the ol’ blog. I sort of assume you dudes would rather read about NetHack ascensions and broken Xboxes than listen to me bitch and/or gloat about elections. But seeing as how we just had a big one, and seeing as how my guy won, I feel like I should use this space to decompress a bit.
Even now that the election is over the political climate in this country is pretty repugnant. We have one side crying out how half the country are liberal welfare sponges who are letting a socialist dictator destroy the nation, and the other side thumbing their noses in celebration that the evil, racist conservatives are finally starting to die off. I don’t take solace in either of these positions. I didn’t in 2004, either, when they were mostly reversed.
Right now, it looks to me, the Republican base is becoming more and more marginalized with each passing year. From a sheer demographic perspective, the US is going to tend towards a single-party government unless some changes are made. That sounds just as bad to me as this current mess with “the party of NO”. To my mind, the question isn’t “how can we right-minded liberals finally deliver the final crushing blow”, but rather, “what has to change before we have a viable conservative party again?”
In other words, under what circumstances could I see myself voting Republican?
First, the social issues have to go. Until they get straight on gay rights and women’s reproductive issues, there’s no point even inviting me to the table. Less important issues (to me) would be cleaning up our immigration policies, putting an end to state-sponsored paranoia and lifting bans on what an adult can put into his own body. Start with “harm none, do what ye will” and regulate from there. When your argument begins with “we need to legislate morality”, it ends with me voting for the other guy.
Next, and every bit as big a dealbreaker, the denial of science has to stop. I am willing to hear counter-arguments to evolution, stem cell research, alternate energy and climate change, but those arguments had better come in the form of peer-reviewed research. This has gotten so extreme that we had an elected official actually say, in 2012, right there in front of everyone, that rape doesn’t lead to pregnancy. When your idealogy is so strong you attempt to warp reality around it, I don’t want you running a car wash, let alone a government office. “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” Damn straight.
Third, and just as important, stop treating people who disagree with you as though they are villains out to destroy your country. Liberals are just as guilty of this as conservatives, tis true. The key difference I’ve noted in the past three election cycles, though, is that with conservatives, the hate actually comes from the top. Maybe this is confirmation bias, but I do not recollect Obama making value judgments about Republican voters at any point in the ’08 or ’12 elections. Romney, on the other hand, called me a “moocher” who “wants things for free”. Me, personally! I’m a hard worker who pays his taxes, manages his debt, gives to charity, obeys the law and cares about his fellow man! How dare you, Mitt?
That last thing might be my biggest hurdle, when it comes to voting Republican. Jeb Bartlet, my favorite fictional president, said during one of his debates: “I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me.” To dismiss a group of Americans so completely and utterly is a very clear sign that candidate has no interest in representing that group of Americans once in office. By contrast, one only needs to look at all the whining liberals have done about Obama to see that, whatever else might be said about the man, he is doing his level best to represent everyone. Even the people who hate him.
This isn’t a universal trait amongst Republicans. I don’t think Romney actually believed the things he said in the infamous 47% recording. He was, quite bluntly, playing to the crowd. It saddens me that moderate politicians have to twist their positions toward unreasonable extremes in order to gain votes. Even amongst the heaviest-hitters in the Republican party, it’s not hard to find chinks in their armor. I remember seeing video from a McCain rally in ’08 where he spoke out against lies being spread about his opponent. It wasn’t the complete McCain/Palin message — more an anomaly than anything — but it was honest. Respectable. “No, Obama is not a Muslim or an Arab terrorist.” That isn’t what his people wanted to hear, but it was the truth.
I believe the reason John McCain and Mitt Romney appeared so awkward and disingenuous during their respective elections is they had to adopt a message which stood in opposition to their personal political views. Both of them lost as a result.
If you look at politics as it plays on the world stage, the American perspective on left vs. right is pretty warped. Anywhere else on the planet (well, anywhere with free elections at least) Obama would be considered just right-of-center. Since I voted for Obama twice with a clear conscience, I think that neatly answers my original question: when the Republican party can run a reasonable politician who lines up with my own right-of-center politics, I will feel good about voting for them. I’ve got my fingers crossed for 2016.
ENOUGH ABOUT POLITICS. BRING ON THE PONIES.
I got mild enjoyment from the season three premiere of Friendship is Magic. It had most of the same problems all the two-part adventure episodes have had, and only one of the three songs is worth adding to my pony playlist. I did appreciate that there was no mention of elemental friendship superpowers; each of the ponies contributed via her personality and talents, rather than by firing candy lasers. (The flip side of that, of course, is that the day was instead saved by vague and convenient love-and-light lasers. Ah well.)
Cadence and Shining Armor are boring characters. I hope they aren’t becoming fixtures.
There are the barest hints of a vast metaplot slowly encroaching on the story. I hope the writers know what they’re doing with this, and aren’t just pandering to the fanfiction crowd. TV writers who start playing to the fans are a bit like conservatives who start playing to the dammit there I go again.
Screw it, I’m off to play NetHack.
Ragnar the chaotic orcish ranger joins Dez the archeologist, Grundle the caveman, Rosa the priestess and Big Bertha the valkyrie in the Brickroad pantheon of NetHack demigods. (Yes, I am fanatical about ticking off each and every ascension. They are all of them very special to me.)
Looking over my log file, I see it took me twenty Ragnars to finally ascend one. Most of those landed somewhere on the learning curve of figuring out how to manage the ranger’s missile weapons and finite ammunition supply. One of them was my first ever death by petrification — I killed a monster while blinded, and then stepped onto the square where its corpse fell. Turns out it was a chickatrice, and I wasn’t wearing gloves. Two lessons learned: 1) don’t melee monsters while blinded unless I know what they are, and 2) until I have gloves, use [m] to move while blinded until. (This causes you to take a step without attempting to attack or feel what is laying on the square. For example, a chickatrice corpse.)
But no, mostly it was just getting used to the bow and arrow. Rangers start with two stacks of arrows: one stack of +0 and one stack of +2. There are a lot of arrows in each stack. More arrows, in fact, than I had ever seen in one place on any of my previous characters. But those arrows go fast. Rangers commonly fire more than one arrow per round, which is a good thing, because it’s a fast and effective way to kill monsters without having to melee them. But every arrow fired has a chance of breaking, so the more skirmishes you get into, the fewer shots you have. The +2 arrows break less frequently, but still frequently enough that you can’t afford to miss shots with them. If all your arrows run out, you’ve got nothing to fall back on besides a shitty stupid dagger and whatever melee weapons have showed up in the dungeon. (Which, very early in the game, are usually too shitty to use or too dangerous to try. “The curved sword welds itself to your hand!”)
At first I tried to ignore the bow altogether, let my pet do all the killing, and make do with my dagger. This worked for a while — it was similar to the archeologist and priest’s early game — but once second-tier monsters started showing up I was outclassed. Also, I’m really bad about keeping my pets alive past six or seven floors. And besides, the archeologist and priest both had combat options the ranger didn’t. Sure their early options sucked, but they didn’t have to go into the fray with an orcish dagger in one hand and their dick in the other.
So I slowly learned to embrace the bow. I used the [Q]uiver and [f]ire commands for the first time. I learned to use my supply of +0 arrows first, which would usually skill me up enough to #enhance my bow skill before [Q]uivering the +2 stack. When kobolds and gnomes fired arrows at me, I made sure to pick up their supply. Sometimes I would take a stack from an #untrapped ^. An early potion of sickness became a lucky find. (You can #dip a stack of arrows into a potion of sickness to poison them. Poisoned arrows are immediately fatal some percentage of the time.)
No matter what I did, though, the arrows would run dry long before I had a good melee backup or some cache of escape items. My usual early game of clearing out dungeon floors and paying a visit to Minetown wasn’t accomplishing much but piles of dead, hapless Ragnars.
I had to change my strategy. The earlier I could get escape items, the better. They don’t always show up in the dungeon, or in the Mines, but they do always show up in Sokoban. My plan became to push for Sokoban immediately, forgoing all other dungeon exploration, and stockpile the wands, rings and food found there. Clearing Sokoban usually left me with lots of spare arrows, usually a couple of strong pets, and at least one good Elbereth wand. So armed, I could go back and carefully explore the upper levels, pet-testing armor and getting myself to around -1 AC. Then, it was a matter of pushing downwards until I found an altar, where I could sacrifest until an artifact weapon showed up.
I reached the point where I could consistently get Stormbringer and make a serious dent in the dungeon. Even at that point, though, I realized what a powerful tool my bow was. I already knew what monsters had to be fought from a distance, and what monsters were dangerous enough to soften up a bit before reaching for my sword. I was a little bummed when I found out rangers can’t #twoweapon, but that’s balanced by the expert skill in bow. Eventually I’d have a stack of 60 or 70 blessed poisoned +6 arrows. Taking down a master mind flayer from across the room with two volleys gave me a huge boner.
My early game sorted, I only lost four more Ragnars. Two of these were probably the most stunningly stupid deaths I’d ever suffered in NetHack, and they provide me with a good opportunity to talk about the guts of the game a bit. So buckle in.
When you have an altar aligned to your god, you can #offer a monster corpse in sacrifice. Do this enough times and your god rewards you with an artifact weapon. (Doing this over and over for the expressed purpose of receiving a good weapon is what I mean by “sacrifesting”.) The rules for sacrificing are pretty simple: don’t #offer up any pets, don’t #offer up any corpses that are old and nasty (no mummies or zombies, please), and don’t #offer up your own species.
That last rule has a little bend to it. Chaotic characters, such as Ragnar, can safely #offer their own species. At least, “safely” in this context means “god won’t get mad at you”. In fact, you are rewarded, in a fashion, by having one of the endgame demon princes summoned to your location. This demon prince is so impressed at your cruelty that he regards you as peaceful. As long as you don’t attack him, he is no danger to you. The benefit of this is, that particular demon won’t be generated later in Gehennom. (Not that demon princes are very dangerous opponents by that time, but you know, one less thing.)
It’s usually pretty hard to accidentally attack a peaceful entity, including shopkeepers, priests, guards and the like. If you bump into one, the game asks for confirmation so you don’t totally screw yourself. This is true for peaceful monsters as well, up to and including demon princes. The only exception is when you’re armed with a bloodthirsty blade. In that case, your weapon has a mind of its own, and doesn’t wait for permission to shove itself into whatever friendly you just typo’d into.
The most common artifact weapon received during a chaotic character’s sacrifest is Stormbringer. Stormbringer is a decently powerful broadsword that sucks life from monsters. Also, it is bloodthirsty. And from here even unsophisticated NetHackers can piece together the puzzle. After getting well and truly trounched by an angry Yeenoghu in the middle of Minetown, I had no recourse except to laugh out loud and say, “Well that was fucking retarded. I’ll never make that idiotic mistake again in my NetHack career.”
Bollocked if I didn’t lose the very next Ragnar in the very same way, with the very same Stormbringer, by bumping into the very same angry-ass Yeenoghu.
The next Ragnar, I thought I was going to ascend. He managed to avoid pissing off the peaceful demon princes he summoned, for one. He took the fight all the way down to the deepest depths, got his grubby mitts on the Amulet of Yendor, and made it all the way back to the Astral Plane. The first two altars he checked were of no use to him, and on his way to the third Death came up behind him and killed him twice. This death stung. It was the farthest into the game I’d ever lost a run; the only time I’ve ever died on the Astral Plane. And it was entirely my fault! Death (as in, an actual monster called Death) was only able to catch me because I had forgotten to swing by my Sokoban stash and pick up some spare wands of death and teleportation. If I’d been able to slaughter and/or teleport the mobs of ants and dragons and vampires and such on the Astral Plane, instead of standing on a square futiley swinging Stormbringer around like some moron, Death would have only had time to touch me once or twice. Over 200 HPs, gone in a flash. Twice. Wow.
Lesson learned: you can never, never be over-prepared for the Astral Plane. It doesn’t matter what your AC is, what intrinsics you’re packing or how many HPs you have, the riders mean business. If you’re ever in a situation where you’re meleeing Death, something went wrong somewhere and it’s already too late to fix.
The next Ragnar triggered a boulder trap on the second floor, dying almost immediately. [a]pply trombone.
Yes, the next Ragnar had everything he needed. All the lessons from Ragnars past converged into one beautiful, white-hot point: skill up on the shitty arrows before switching to the good ones… treat Stormbringer with respect… don’t neglect the Sokoban stash. As far as lucky advantages went, this Ragnar only had two, and neither were particularly useful in the early game. For one, he found a cloak of magic resistance very early in the dungeon. (Of course I didn’t actually know I had this until I did my mass-identifying later on, but I probably wouldn’t have worn it anyway. Rangers start with a +2 cloak of displacement, and displacement is more useful than magic resistance in the very early game.) For another, there were a lot of general stores. At least four huge shops got generated above Sokoban, providing me with lots of resources to play with in the mid game.
But in the early game? Forget about it. Lots of counting arrows and frantically managing E-squares. Sokoban had a bag of holding, and the Minetown altar was cross-aligned, which meant I had to push into the scarier parts of the dungeon without reflection, magic resistance (remember, I didn’t know I had it) or a decent melee weapon. I used up most of my food rations taming cats and dogs. I got into the habit of [s]earching before every step, so as not to bumble into a polymorph trap. I was down to [f]iring cursed orcish arrows by the time I finally found an altar to use. And even then, Mars didn’t play nice with me. Instead of Stormbringer, he gifted me with Grimtooth, which was just a souped of version of the +1 dagger I already hated.
I sacrifested some more, and once again, no Stormbringer. Instead I got Frost Brand, a long sword which deals ice damage. Not great, but I had flashbacks to the thousands of turns Dez spent sacrifesting in search of Grayswandir, and decided, “Meh, good enough. At least I won’t piss off Yeenoghu.”
Around this time I got my cloak identified, but I wasn’t that stoked about it. Ideally I decided I’d want gray dragon scale mail, which offers magic resistance in the body armor slot, so I could keep wearing my cloak of displacement instead. Fort Ludios and the Castle both generated gray dragons, but neither dropped scales. Medusa had a polished silver shield, which was good for reflection (I think this is guaranteed, actually). In addition, I’d gotten an early ring of polymorph control and lots of helpful rings had been generated as metallic. This meant I could fill up on intrinsics by transforming into a metal-eating monster and then eating rings. This got me fire and shock resistance, a few spare points of Constitution. (Sadly, no increased damage or teleportation control. And I ate like five of each of them.)
Polypiling the Ludios haul earned me speed boots, a helm of brilliance, and some other knick-knacks. I examined the holes in my ascension kit. All I really needed was AC and gauntlets of power. I hadn’t yet used my wand of wishing.
I decided not to. Usually I like to wear gray or silver scales, gaining magic resistance or reflection, respectively, but I already had both of those from other armor pieces. Displacement is nice, but not critical. Instead, I just enchanted up some orange dragon scales to get my AC topped off. Kind of weird, but why use a wish if you don’t have to?
Gauntlets of power, I decided I could just do without. The extra melee damage would have been nice, but I’d already poly’d up more wands of death and teleportation than I could ever use, and had a huge stack of poisoned +6 arrows besides. I stowed away my wishing wand for an Astral Plane emergency. (Partially-eaten chickatrice corpse, maybe?)
I thought the ranger quest was a lot of fun. I’d been warned against it by a curmudgeonly NetHack dude I know, who said it was boring because it involved lots of walking through corridors fighting centaurs. It turns out, though, that only one floor is like that, and the floor contains lots of trees and iron bars, which are fun symbols you almost never get to see. There’s also a “hunt the wumpus” level partway through, which I thought was cute. (“You fall into a pit! Luckily, it wasn’t bottomless after all.”) At the end you kill some easy-ass scorpion thing and get the Longbow of Diana, which provides telepathy and can be #invoke’d to spit out a stack of arrows.
The ascension run was a hassle thanks to a couple of particularly tenacious arch-liches. It wasn’t until I’d spent fifteen or twenty minutes chasing a purple L through hordes of summoned nasties the entire way across Orcus Town that I realized I hadn’t seen, wished for or written any genocide scrolls. Until now I never appreciated the wisdom in standing on the upstairs to kill a powerful, teleporting, spell-casting monster… probably because I normally wipe them out. Fuck it, I’m already running wishless, I might as well run genocideless too.
I made sure to triple-check my Sokoban stash. This time, the Astral went as smooth as can be. I got lucky and found the altar on my second try, but I was well enough equipped that I could have checked them all twice, if need be. That makes this my first ascension without the [C]all exploit, as well. (I got scolded for using it last time.)
Ranger started out as a hassle, but after learning the ins and outs I started to like the class more and more. The early game was pretty nice because orcs start with poison resistance, which means they’re easier to feed. I wonder how much different an elven ranger’s early game is? (I wouldn’t have lost a Ragnar to a wand of sleep in that case, at least!)
And now, with twenty Ragnars behind me, it’s time to hang NetHack up for a while and move on to other games. I hear DoomRL is pretty damn fun?
Here’s Ragnar’s endgame dump, in case you’re a nerd who likes reading lists of wands and monsters vanquished.