Tabletop Simulator and Chess 2

If you like board games, there are two new releases on Steam you might want to check out. They are Tabletop Simulator and Chess 2.

Tabletop Simulator

I don’t think any video game exists with a more apt title. For your $15 you get a table and a big chest full of physics objects to move around. These physics objects can be manipulated by any player at the table, and can take any shape or size in whatever quantity and configuration you need. If you need, say, 52 flat, rectangular objects  with suits and numbers on them, you’re good to go. Or 64 chips with white and black sides. Or isometric dice and a beholder.

The game — to be more accurate, the sandbox — makes no attempt to inflict or enforce any rules. It just supplies the pieces. It has a few old classics built in, Chess and Poker and Parcheesi and the like, which you can play as-is or modify however you want. Play Chess with all bishops or Poker with all aces, or just sit there throwing Parcheesi pawns at each other. When you get tired of that, you can use the in-game editor to design your own games either using the supplied chits and dice or crafting your own.

Or, if you’re like us, you’ll prefer to browse the Steam Workshop for mods other people have created. Most every board game you have in your cabinet right now has already been ported over, from Monopoly to Arkham Horror to Nicolas Cage Guess Who. (I hope this is the only board game night I ever have that involves the question, “Is your Nicolas Cage on fire?”)

The real magic of Tabletop Simulator, of course, is the ability to play all of these games with people who aren’t able to sit down at your real-life table with you. For some reason the board game industry has not been very diligent in offering virtual versions of their products, and so Tabletop Simulator has stepped in to fill the gap. The multiplayer aspect of the game is surprisingly seamless: one player creates a lobby, then everyone else joins. Your lobby can be password-protected to ensure random people don’t drop in. Or you scroll down the list of publically-available lobbies to see if any strangers are playing your game of choice. Everyone can play even if only one person has the game, which eliminates all that annoying “wait a minute, so-and-so needs to install the mod” downtime. There is an in-game text chat so players can communicate and/or heckle one another.

Since Tabletop Simulator doesn’t actually know what game you’re playing, it can’t enforce any of the game’s rules. In theory, this means players can move each other’s pieces or otherwise attempt to ruin the game by cheating or trolling. Points against, sure, but these same behaviors are part and parcel with the physical board game experience, and you deal with them the same way: by kicking the player out and continuing to play without them. There is also strength in such lawlessness: rules are as easy to invent as they are to break, opening the door for any number of house rules your little heart desires.

The sandbox’s movement and camera controls are a little cumbersome, and the physics can act in odd ways sometimes, but this is a small price to pay to be able to play board games with people who, until now, I’ve only been able to talk about board games with. The tagline we kept repeating in my Twitch stream was, “For $15 you get every board game ever.” That’s not strictly true — more physically demanding board games like Jenga or Mouse Trap are impossible in the current sandbox — but it’s true enough to keep us amused into the foreseeable future.

Chess 2

I thought it was an eyebrow-raising decision for David Sirlin to initially release his sequel to Chess as an OUYA exclusive, because who even has one of those? But now that the game is available on Steam (and I think iOS?) I’m actually dying to try it out. I love Chess, but I’m a bottom-feeding novice, and I have absolutely no desire to memorize endless variations of game openers or to play against opponents who have done that. Chess 2‘s promise of asymmetrical gameplay and alternate win conditions got me really excited.

But not excited enough to spend $25 on it. That price is outrageously high for a virtual copy of a board game.

I’m sure Sirlin would say that $25 (really only $21, thanks to the launch sale) is a drop in the bucket compared to how much competitive fun I will get out of the game, and he may very well be right, but we don’t live in a world where video games are priced in terms of dollars-per-fun-unit. We live in a world where I could take that $25 and buy Shovel Knight or Freedom Planet or Crypt of the Necrodancer plus a footlong sub sandwich.

Or I could just wait for someone to make a Chess 2 mod for Tabletop Simulator. Oh look, someone already has.

TwitterFacebookGoogle+RedditTumblrShare this post!

Further Perler-ing!

Hi! I’ve completed a few more fusion bead projects you might could look at, if you want.

ibuki

Ibuki from Street Fighter as a robot master. I sent this one to a viewer who plays a really mean Ibuki during our Scrubbin’ Bubbles streams. I can’t take credit for the Mega-Man-ization; it’s just something I found on the internet somewhere. There’s a whole batch of these, so I’ll have to do up T. Hawk one day.

rubberduckie

Peanut wanted a duck, and what Peanut wants, Peanut gets. He lives next to our TV now.

marias

Maria from Castlevania: Rondo of Blood and grown-up Maria from Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. I didn’t realize until I beaded this out how little of a face Maria had in Symphony.

bartz_krile

Blue Mage Butts and Kitty Krile from Final Fanatsy V. I wanted to finish up the rest of the team, but I ran out of black beads. Once I get my delivery I’ll probably have to do up a six-armed Gilgamesh for them to fight.

linkbetweenworlds

Having no black beads severely limits the patterns I could make. Fortunately A Link Between Worlds offered a unique opportunity to bead a character with a white border! This is the first perler I’ve made that isn’t a 1:1 pixel re-creation, and I was quite worried about how it would turn out. I started with a grainy screenshot from A Link Between Worlds in Photoshop, reduced the color depth by as much as I could, and then hand-selected the color palette I’d use. I’ve got a few more patterns made using this same technique, I’ll have to make sure I translate a few more of them into beads.

Folks in my Twitch chat always have lots of questions about the perler-ing process. I’ll have to write up a comprehensive how-to guide next time I tackle a large project. Which should be… uh… as soon as my delivery gets here, actually! Thanks for reading.

Outlast

You attend the annual Halloween event at your local theme park. You get a brochure that lists all the haunted houses, and each one has a little story. The story for Outlast reads: “Paging Dr. Trager! The evil Murkoff Corporation has recently acquired the Mount Massive Insane Asylum, and the inmates are restless! Will you unravel the mysteries of Father Martin’s dark cult? Or will you join the mutilated patients who inhabit these haunted halls?” Of course, there’s not really a mystery. You go in the front door, turn lots of tight corners, and an inmate with his guts hanging out jumps off a bed and lunges at you. At the end, you put your 3D glasses back in the big bin and muscle passed a group of teenage girls giggling about how totally scary the guy with the chains was.

There is a burgeoning industry within the greater community of streamers and Let’s Players catering specifically to the “haunted house” genre. A murderous zombie suddenly rockets onto the screen, accompanied by a shrill violin sting and a spray of blood, and the player screams his head off (much to the delight of the viewership). You don’t have to poke around YouTube very long to see guys who have built their entire channel on this type of reaction. Feeding into this industry are a new generation of horror games, of which Outlast is one. Since the thrill of the game is in the scares, and those work whether you’re playing the game or just watching it, the developers can get away with having as little gameplay as they care to design. That sounds really harsh, but that’s how I came away from Outlast: it’s not a game that’s meant to be played and enjoyed, it’s a a game that’s meant to be gawked at, consumed quickly, then thrown away by an audience eager to move on to the next jump scare.

I say all this as a fan of stupid, shallow horror movies. I remained a fan of the Saw films even after they discarded the psychological element of their horror and ramped up the gore instead. I will preach the merits of the ridiculous death scenes in Final Destination to anyone who will listen. I have spent long, sleepless nights cruising Netflix watching B-list, no-talent, gore-for-the-sake-of-gore movies. I recently watched a movie where a man is snapped by a giant apple slicer and stands there watching his body fall apart into one-inch cubes. Once it was over, I immediately watched the sequel.

But is any of it scary? Of course not. It’s just a pile of dumb gibbets. You can tell, after you’ve waded through the gibbet-piles long enough, which movies are serving it to you with a wink and a hefty helping of self-awareness, and which ones really think they’re aspiring to successful horror. The former group is fun, if forgettable. The second is just sad. And that’s the group Outlast is in.

Let’s get the gameplay out of the way first. Outlast has two game mechanics. It does not have three game mechanics. They are: 1) Run and Hide, and 2) Find Batteries.

Run and Hide means the protagonist cannot fight, evade, disable or otherwise incapacitate his enemies. When confronted with a monster he must run away and hide from it until it loses interest in him. Every single enemy encounter in the game involves dropping the player into a confusing maze of hallways, identifying the predetermined hiding places ahead of time, triggering the bad guy, running back to the hiding place, and waiting for the bad guy to go away. Once you know which hallways to turn down, and which hiding spots to use, you go to the next area and do it again.

Find Batteries is what you do during the downtime between encounters. You have a flashlight, which you need to see in many of the game’s areas. This flashlight chews through batteries at breakneck speed. This introduces an element of resource management into the game, similar to how Resident Evil had a finite amount of ammo and ink ribbons. We know, of course, that the game won’t really let us run out of batteries, because then it would be unplayable. Every room you visit contains a plot flag, a document, a battery, or some combination of those things. So the degree to which this mechanic works is questionable.

I think it’s fair to say that the gameplay is pretty thin. This bothers me a lot as a “Gameplay is King” kind of guy. If your game only has two game mechanics, and neither is interesting or well-developed, you are going to have a very difficult time keeping me engaged. At that point you are trying to sell your game on the strength of its writing, or its setting, or its aesthetics. And Outlast isn’t strong enough, not even by a longshot. If the interactive element is weak by design, your story has to be a masterpiece. Your characters require incredible depth and vision. Your attention to detail needs to be microscopic. To put a really fine point on it, Journey is a paragon of graphics, music, world design and emotional engagement — and I didn’t like it because I got bored with all the walking and flying around.

The task is doubly difficult for horror games, because the horror genre — the ones that are really trying to be scary and not just buckets-o-gore — is as much about what you don’t show as what you do. The best horror movie directors know when to show something horrifying, and when to leave it to the audience’s imagination. They know how long to hold a tense moment. They know to how much pressure to release so the next scare is all the more powerful. The experience has to be crafted and babysat in ways the action and adventure genres don’t. In other words, the very nature of interactivity in video games works against horror stories. In a video game, you can’t not show the monster.

An example: a thrilling chase scene in a horror movie usually only lasts a moment or two, because chases are by nature high-adrenaline moments leading to some kind of resolution. In a video game, one possible resolution is “the player doesn’t get caught, but also doesn’t find the next plot flag”. I got Outlast into this state repeatedly, in which case the chases would drag out for as long as I wanted them to. (Usually this happened accidentally, but sometimes I did it intentionally just to show everyone how silly it was.) Twice I was running away from the chain-rattling murderer only to turn down a hallway and hide in a spot the designers didn’t intend. Said murderer stood there, a few feet away from me, glancing around like a guy looking for the bathroom in a restaurant. Sometimes he would get bored and wander away, resetting the chase. Dramatic music continued to play, loud heartbeats continued to throb, but the tension was totally deflated. What fun is a chase scene the second time around?

Another: I have really terrible spatial awareness in games, and died a lot as I got lost in the maze-like passageways. The penalty for death in Outlast is very slight; you just respawn at the beginning of the area. As a result, I stopped being afraid of the bad guys. I stopped caring if they caught me, because I had no investment whatsoever in staying alive. I had a lot more success with the game when I stopped treating it like a desperate struggle to survive and started treating it like a video game with a quick-load function. “I’ll run into that room and let the guy beat me to death while I look around for the exits. Then, when I respawn, I’ll know exactly which direction to run.”

I realize I’m contradicting myself. On one hand I balk at Outlast for having barely any gameplay, and on the other hand I deride it because the gameplay it did have ruined my experience as a horror fan. It’s a hard problem to solve. Most horror games — most video games in general, really — solve it by giving the player something engaging to do once they realize the writing is substandard. Nobody cares about the motivations of the bug monsters in Halo, but it doesn’t matter because they’re fun to shoot. Everyone rolls their eyes when Grand Theft Auto tries to take itself seriously as a crime drama, but then they’re happy again in the next scene when they’re driving an ambulance through a shopping mall. Outlast doesn’t do anything to fill in the “This is stupid, but _________!”

As horror, Outlast is strictly lukewarm. The writers had a bag of moldy tropes at the ready, and used each one liberally. Body parts in the toilets. Messages scrawled on the walls in blood. Anonymous torsos laying around. Phones left off the hook. Rust. Debris. Mutilation. A thunderstorm. Scattered diary pages written by dead people. And far, far more jump scares than is reasonable. They come at measured intervals you can set a clock to. I don’t know how many times I commented, “Aren’t we about due for our next jump scare? Oh, there it is.”

What’s lacking is any semblance of emotional connection. To really freak me out, you have to get in my head. You need something psychological, something introspective. “This is scary because it’s dangerous!” isn’t good enough. Heck, Tomb Raider and The Legend of Zelda do that. Being at risk of death, in a game, is not in and of itself a reason for dread. Being shocked or startled isn’t the same thing as being frightened. Mortal Kombat wasn’t billed as a horror game, but that’s the bar Outlast aspires to.

Where the writing fails is that there is no plot. I mean, stuff happens. There are characters and they do things, or did things rather, and then at the end there is An Explanation, but that’s not the same. What isn’t there is a sequence of events. You go to the spooky asylum, you get locked in, jump scare jump scare, you get chased around for a while, and then you get chased around in some new place. A crazy guy shows up and tells you to meet him at the exit. You get to the exit and the guy says to meet him at somewhere else. You get there and the guy says to meet him upstairs. You can’t go upstairs because the elevator’s locked. You chase down the fuses to move the thing to get the key. The guy unlocks the exit. Then some other guy explains to you what it all means, except of course you don’t care what it means because nothing he explains to you really connects with anything you’ve done or experienced. Absolutely nothing you do in the game has any effect at a higher level than “the locked door is open now” or “the big guy can’t chase you anymore”. The reverse is also true; nothing that happens in the game world is meaningful for the player except as a means of dropping him in another terrible place to trudge through.

The game tries to flesh out its middle acts by placing documents around the joint for you to chase down. Nothing in these documents ends up being important, though, and certainly none of them serve to develop the plot. One is an e-mail sent by a nurse who is appalled at how badly the patients are being treated. You find it after two hours of tromping through the blood and feces of countless starved and mutilated patients. Later you find another e-mail from that nurse’s superior, declaring the nurse be admitted as a patient and held in the asylum until death. Not that you ever meet that nurse, or learn his fate, or avenge his death. There’s nothing to discover here, no mystery to solve, nothing to piece together. It’s just “Evil Company Does Evil Things Because Evil”, and each document you find is simply another example of said evil.

It’s what you get if you ask a middle schooler to write a horror story. You get descriptions of overwhelming amounts of blood and guts. Shambling guys without noses. Insane zombies raping a corpse. Nazi scientists. Oh, and you get the word “fuck” a lot. Because using such an extreme word obviously conveys the horrifying adult themes in play. Then one particularly bookish 13-year-old, who recently discovered Greek mythology, says there should be a painting of Prometheus in there somewhere to show how deep and symbolic it all is.

And after all that, the big plot twist ends up being “the guy who supposedly died a long time ago but gave every indication of continuing to do things in the intervening years turns out to still be alive!” I walked away from him halfway through his monologue about What It All Means and What I Need To Do Now. It turns out what he wanted me to do was go through the only door I hadn’t gone through yet and push all the buttons in the room on the other side. I was going to do that anyway, so I guess his speech wasn’t very important.

In the end, Outlast is neither my sort of game, nor my brand of horror. I need more game in my games, and more horror in my horror. I really do think there is more enjoyment to be had in watching people react to the game than in experiencing it on its own merits. It’s the same reason I always walk behind my wife at the haunted house; I have more fun watching her jump and shriek than I do watching Hockey Mask Guy jump out at me while revving his chainsaw. Hockey Mask Guy knows that, too, and that’s why he attacks her instead of me.

Hmm… Peanut can’t wear 3D glasses. Okay, bad analogy. You get the point, though. Thanks for reading!

Fewer than 21 Important Answers to Questions Movies Forgot to… uh… Answer

Today Cracked.com put up this list of 21 Important Questions Movies Forgot to Answer. One of my favorite pastimes as an insufferable internet dork is to point out the obvious answers to pop culture questions people come up with to make themselves look smarter than film writers but actually only make themselves look like morons who don’t like to think about things for more than two seconds. (My other favorite pastime is constructing unwieldy run-on sentences.)

There were 21 questions in the Cracked article, but I haven’t seen all the movies referenced, so unfortunately I can’t answer all 21 of them. Feel free to fill in the gaps in the comments!

Q. Did [Detective Kujan] forget that Kint admitted to shooting Saul Berg, murdering him in cold blood? The Usual Suspects
A. Kujan was single-minded, and interrogating Kint for just one specific thing. He didn’t care who Kint may or may not have killed, didn’t have any evidence to prove it anyway, and was probably aware the confession would not hold up in court given the nature of the interrogation.

Q. What the hell happened to these four basterds? Inglorious Basterds
A. They died during World War 2, a military conflict which claimed the lives of thousands and thousands of American soldiers.

Q. Tony, why? Why didn’t you make [Black Widow, Captain America and Hawkeye] Iron Man suits? The Avengers
A. Those characters have super powers that do not lend themselves well to being locked in a bulky nuclear battle suit. (This does not necessarily mean those super powers are more useful than “nuclear battle suit”, mind you. But there’s something to be said for maintaining one’s individuality.)

Q. So how did [Lando Calrissian] get a job working security for Jabba? Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
A. I haven’t seen this movie in over a decade, so this is just a blind guess: Lando infiltrated Jabba’s organization in order to rescue Han Solo, and Jabba (who is a hedonistic crime lord and not a super-intelligent criminal mastermind) did not know who he was.

Q. Come to think of it, what happened to [Lando's] cyborg? Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
A. It got lost or destroyed, and nobody cared, because sentient mechanical beings are not considered to be people or even “life forms” in the Star Wars universe.

Q. How did Forrest Gump … obtain a license to operate a commercial shrimp boat? Forrest Gump
A. It was established very early in the movie that, as far as the state of Alabama is concerned, Forrest is of “average intelligence”. The Department of Shrimpin’ Boat Licenses (or whatever) probably was not in the habit of denying licenses to people who talk funny.

Q. What holiday is this parade celebrating? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
A. A traditional event of local significance of the sort commonly commemorated by parades or festivals. (Admittedly these were probably more common in the ’80s.)

Q. Where did Edward Scissorhands get all that ice? Edward Scissorhands
A. By freezing water, which is one of the most abundant resources on the planet.

Q. Woohoo! … Wait, now what? Finding Nemo
A. The fish will starve to death. Alternately: that’s the joke.

Q. How the [expletive deleted] were humpback whales communicating with an alien intelligence? Star Trek
A. ESP. This is not a flippant answer. ESP really exists in the Star Trek universe, and there’s no reason to believe a species that went extinct before ESP was studied wasn’t capable of it.

Q. Sure Elsa, you got your own ice palace, but what the hell are you going to eat? Frozen
A. Food brought to her ice palace by one of her giant, sentient snow monsters.

Q. Wait, so how old was the Prince when he answered the door? Eleven? Beauty and the Beast
A. Yes.

Q. If the yellow brick road goes to the Emerald City and the Wizard, where does the red brick road go? The Wizard of Oz
A. Nowhere. It ends. Alternately: it doesn’t matter, because Dorothy isn’t going that way.

Q. When did Andy learn that he was in possession of valuable, vintage toys? Toy Story 3
A. Sometime during the ten years between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, where he was growing up into a thoughtful young man who takes good care of his toys, and also had internet access.

Q. So why did this machine combine only Brundle’s and the fly’s DNA? The Fly
A. The collective DNA of single-celled organisms didn’t provide enough material for the machine to work with. They were either destroyed, or they were absorbed but had an only negligible effect on the completed mutant. (This is a junk science answer, but it was a junk science movie, so I’m okay with that.)

Q. Revenge for WHAT? Star Wars: The Phantom Mence
A. For whatever it was the Jedi did to them that drove them underground, defeating them and forcing them to operate in the shadows rather than openly. Also, be careful what you ask about; leaning too hard on this question might result in more prequels!

Q. OK, so when can you start feeding [mogwai]? 1am? 2am? Noon? Gremlins
A. Presumably after sunrise, given that “after midnight” colloquially means “very late at night”, and the man who gave the instructions was an ancient Asian mystic rather than an internet smartass.

This has been your daily dose of Me Being a Smart Ass. Thanks for reading!

Castlevania is terrible.

Castlevania is a terrible game. I am sorry if you like it, but you like a terrible game. Maybe it was not terrible in the ’80s, when important lessons had not yet been learned about how to make non-terrible games. Back in those old dinosaur days, a game where you didn’t have to pump quarters into a machine to keep playing it felt downright friendly, I suppose. But even by NES-era standards Castlevania is terrible.

I have debated fans of this game at great length over the years. They see a game where brutal challenge and player abuse is a desirable thing, a sort of merit badge to be earned. Beating Castlevania is an achievement in ways that beating Mega Man and Kirby are not. I suppose I can see that point of view. My own beloved Final Fantasy shares many of those nutrients, especially when you consider some of the insane challenge runs I’ve completed in that game. Beating Final Fantasy with a solo mage puts me in an elite club of power-gamers and makes me an authority on the subject. It feels good to be in that place.

But when it comes down to brass tacks I could never argue that “Final Fantasy as a solo mage” is a fun challenge that other gamers should feel comfortable undertaking. I can’t defend my accomplishment in terms of something a sane, rational person would do. When people ask me which Final Fantasy they should play, I recommend the modern versions of the game that don’t involve player abuse.

For years this is how my relationship with Castlevania persisted. I was on the outside, looking in at an elite group of players who had managed to tap into the genius of a classic game. A game I grew up with, but could never tame. A game which did not synergize with any of the skills I’d picked up from other action games over a gaming career that spanned decades. I figured if I could just break through that shell and get to the creamy center of Castlevania my opinion of it would change.

So I did it. I sat down and learned the game. Every brick and candle. Every boss fight. Every screen full of monsters. I’m good at the game now. Good enough, at least, to clear it consistently without a continue. But my opinion didn’t change. The game is still terrible. In some ways, I think now I actually hate it more.

Nostalgia
The first thing I want to mention is that I have a lot of nostalgia for this game. Castlevania is one of the earliest NES games I played. Before I owned an NES I would play over at a friend’s house, and his collection was basically Super Mario Bros., Duck Hunt, Gyromite and Castlevania. When I finally got my own system in 1990 this was one of the first games I asked for, simply because I had played it so much and didn’t know any better. This would have been when I was seven or eight years old.

Many of those old memories are bad, though, and it’s not hard to see why. The game is just too difficult. Games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Mega Man 2 taught me that the more forgiving a game is, the more fun it is to play, and so I gravitated towards that style of game more and more. I mentally filed Castlevania away as something that was just beyond my ability, and left it there. I picked it back up every now and again, sometimes with the mindset that it couldn’t be as bad as I was remembering, only to be reminded that, yep, it sure was.

That particular shelf of games — the ones that were too hard for me as a kid, but which I rediscovered as an adult — is dwindling more and more. I conquered Dragon Warrior and Legacy of the Wizard, toppled Contra and Super C. Zelda 2 and Metroid and Faxanadu. The Wii’s Virtual Console brought me back to Kid Icarus. Sometimes I found the old games really sparkled after I picked them up and polished them off, but sometimes it turns out they’re just turds.

Bad Controls
For years my biggest complaint about Castlevania were that the controls are bad. Purposely bad, I mean. Designed to be bad in order to increase the difficulty of the game. The kind of bad where, if it were baked into a Mario or Zelda game, fans would understandably riot.

It’s not just about the deliberately-measured jumps and attack delay, although that’s part of it. It’s that parts of Simon’s moveset are removed at arbitrary points in the game for reasons the player can plan for, but not control. If the stairs go up and to the left, Simon cannot throw his subweapon to the right with any kind of precision. You can’t duck under an axe or a medusa head if you’re standing next to stairs, because Simon will interpret the command as “climb down stairs” and then get hit. And under no circumstances may you throw your subweapon while ducking.

Many Castlevania fans hold this up as a feature of the game. Mastering the bad controls (and I am certain they will object to my use of the word “bad” in this context) is part of learning the game, after all. My usual flippant response to this is, “If overcoming bad controls is so rewarding, why not just break your controller and play every game that way?” That’s not fair, but I really do feel that way.

The counterargument I hear a lot is Bionic Commando, an action game where the controls have a steeper learning curve than even Castlevania. It takes a lot of practice before you are good enough at moving around in Bionic Commando to even really start playing the game, so surely that’s worse, right? The difference is, in Bionic Commando the controls serve a style of gameplay that is truly unique. Novices can play around with it and do things that are reasonably cool, even if they never get good enough to finish the game. Experts (like me!) get to experience a style of gameplay that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the gaming landscape. Tall ladder, strong payoff.

Castlevania has no such payoff. It’s an action game where you navigate platforms and kill monsters with a variety of weapons. At the top of its tall ladder is a type of game that exists by the dozens in the NES library. Novices who play around with Castlevania‘s controls mainly just jump into monsters and fall into holes, and experts don’t get to do anything cooler or more impressive than a typical Mario or Mega Man game.

Mostly Great Level Design
Once you do master Simon’s awful jumping and whipping actions, most of the levels in the game are fun to learn and fun to play. I am mentioning this because, even though Castlevania is a terrible game, there are the roots of really genius design here. The game did not spawn a million sequels and spin-offs by coincidence.

The game is made mostly of blue and orange blocks, so it’s easy to judge things like “how far will my attack reach” and “can I make that jump” at a glance. Examining the layout of each level is like reading a textbook in how to take a short list of enemies and obstacles and create a huge variety of challenges with them. This is something the old Castlevania games are very good at, but the modern ones are very bad at.

I enjoyed learning the levels in this game and I enjoy sitting down and playing them. I enjoy them more now that I know them pretty well, too. I’m mentioning this not to try and balance out my negative rant with positive observations, but because in some ways my brain registers a terrible game as being more terrible if it has some pleasing aspects to it. Like, if Castlevania were uniformly terrible it’d be easy for me to just write it off and forget about it. Its bad parts sting all the more when I see the shadow they cast over the really good parts. That feeling of, “I would really be enjoying this if not for _____!” drives me absolutely bananas as a player. I would say it’s one of my main sticking points, actually. It rubs me raw more than most folks would think is reasonable.

Or maybe it’s not that, and the bad parts of Castlevania are just really, really bad.

Totally Uneven Boss Fights
The really difficult parts of Castlevania aren’t the levels, though. Except for a few screens (maybe fewer than ten screens in the whole game), you can clear the levels by being very careful and treating every monster and chasm as a discrete challenge. (That’s a good aspect of the level design, by the way: two axe knights in two different situations should feel totally different.)

(There’s another way to get through the levels, too, which I’ll mention later.)

The bosses, aside from Dracula, are just terrible though. They are either 100% trivial, or 100% impossible, and never any point in between. There’s no watch-and-react, no give-and-take. There is no chance of a loss if you’re prepared, and there is no chance of a comeback if you’re losing. They are the antithesis of everything I hold to be true about making fun, challenging boss fights in 2D action games. I hate them. I hate them so much.

The first two bosses in the game do not exist. You can out-damage them even if you walk into the room without a health advantage. Go in and whip, whip, whip. Don’t bother aiming or positioning yourself, just hammer the button, fool! The third boss is almost as easy, although you do need to walk in with a health advantage to make the whip, whip, whip strategy work. There is beef inside the boss room to help you accomplish this.

The fourth and fifth bosses are an order of magnitude more difficult, though. They control so much of the screen with randomly-moving attacks that even if you were playing a game where the hero didn’t control like butt you would still probably end up trading hits. This doesn’t work, because your strikes deal one bar of damage and theirs deal four. I am confident in saying that only a very small group of Castlevania grandmasters can consistently win these fights with just their whip.

But ah, there’s a trick! If you have the right subweapon both of these boss fights are trivialized. Easier, in fact, than the “whip, whip, whip” of the first three bosses. The gap in difficulty is really unreasonable here: you either walk into the room and get destroyed, or you walk in and totally dominate. There is no middle ground.

I am very familiar with this style of boss fight. It’s the core of every Mega Man game, and that’s one of my favorite action series! In fact, my biggest gripe with the latest installment is that it doesn’t let me just walk into boss fights and rule the roost. So what gives?

“Infinite” Continues
In Mega Man, the weapon you need to dominate the boss fight is on your menu screen. You win it from another boss, then you have it forever, and can use it whenever you want. In Castlevania the weapon you need comes out of a candle somewhere in the level. You lose access to this candle if you die or if you accidentally pick up a different weapon.

To its credit, Castlevania doesn’t ever give you a real game over. When you run out of lives you can always start back on the level you died on. This is, in fact, friendlier than a lot of arcade-style action games of its era. In addition, each level has multiple checkpoints, so you aren’t always sent back to the very beginning when you lose.

Let’s mix all these ingredients together, now: the levels are generally safe to traverse if you take them methodically. The bosses are total pushovers provided you have the correct subweapon, which you find in a candle at the beginning of the stage. And when you die, you start back at a checkpoint at the middle or the end of the level.

The end result is, the game’s friendly lives-and-continues system actively works against you! If you die towards the end of the fourth or fifth level, you might as well lose all your lives and start over anyway, because the boss is so unreasonably difficult without a subweapon you now cannot retrieve. And when you continue, now you have to replay the entire stage, slowly and methodically, just like you did last time, and the time before that.

You don’t even have to die in order to feel this sting. Whipping the wrong candle replaces your good subweapon with one that is worthless, and now you might as well start over. Subweapons drop randomly off of defeated enemies, too, and can ruin your run just as quickly.

Fail, then Fail Some More
You can get pretty powerful in Castlevania. Once you have the best subweapon and the highest shot multiplier, you are in excellent shape to blitz the game. At my level of skill, this typically means I can grab the holy water at the beginning of Stage 3 and keep it until the end. The problem is, failing at any point along the way (dying, whipping the wrong candle, whatever) removes all the advantages that were helping you succeed. Depending on where your checkpoint is, you probably have no way to recover except to restart the level.

This property exists in a lot of old games, notably Gradius and Contra. In those games, though, you respawn immediately at the spot where you died with a generous amount of invincibility time. Dying means ruining your flow but not necessarily killing your chances. It’s common to die repeatedly in Contra because you lost your spread gun, but it’s also common to pull out a kludge-y win by chaining the invincibility of repeated deaths while pumping bullets into a boss’s face.

That element of recovery doesn’t exist in Castlevania. Dying means being sent back to your checkpoint with a short whip and no subweapon. As a result, an unlucky death tends to be punished by more death, without any real upside. The slippery slope is demoralizing and painful. The further you are into the game, the tougher it is to get back up to the power level you need to be at to win.

I remember being very young and recognizing this same situation in one of my favorite NES action games: Super Mario Bros. If you’re very careful and know just where you look, you find a fire flower in 8-3. If you can keep this fire flower to the end of 8-4 it is easy to defeat the boss and win the game. If you get hit at all in 8-4, though, you lose your flower and there’s no way you can get another one without replaying the world from 8-1. The last two monsters in the game are very, very difficult to avoid without fire, involving precise timing and a little luck. This gave the end of the game a very off-putting “all or nothing” feel. Some Mega Man games have the same feel in certain areas, usually having to do with weapon energy respawns. Players I talk to generally consider this kind of thing to be a flaw, and yet all of Castlevania is built this way. Am I the only one who noticed?

Memorize, Memorize, Memorize!
The other way to clear the levels, outside of playing methodically, is to just commit them to memory. This is going to happen anyway, at least a little bit, because you’ll be replaying them so much as the bosses terrorize you. And like I said, the stage layouts are generally designed so they become more fun as you become familiar with them.

There’s a line, though, that separates being familiar with a level and committing it to memory. Castlevania‘s levels are on the wrong side of it. To move through the levels quickly, you need to know the position and direction of every enemy. You have to know where health and multipliers spawn. You have to know which medusa heads you should whip and which ones you should jump. You need to know the spots to jump and whip to kill an enemy that wasn’t even onscreen at the time you started your jump. If you know all these things, you can usually run through the levels as quickly as Simon’s stout little legs can carry him. If you’re fuzzy on one detail, though, or mistime one jump, or are a tad slow with one attack, it ruins your rhythm and now you’re on that slippery downward slope.

Rote memorization is by far my least favorite way to win a game. Mario requires the player to build up a set of skills, and then provides levels where those skills are used in response to the level design. Mega Man requires some in-game knowledge, but generally for abstract things like “use x weapon on y monster”. Even Bionic Commando, that bitch-hard game with the incredibly high learning curve, mostly involves assessing risks on the screen and then reacting to those risks.

Castlevania involves knowing what your next action is going to be before you perform it, every screen, for the entire game. Because the only winning strategy is “get the super weapon and then keep it”, riskier approaches are penalized too severely.

I think it’s very telling that videos of good Castlevania players always feature them knowing what’s going to happen before it does. The best Mega Man and Metroid players do the same thing, but underneath them is an entire class of merely-good players who just take the game as it comes. It’s a bit frightening to me that I can break Level 5 of Castlevania down into a list of discrete actions, but not, say, Snake Man’s level of Mega Man 3, which I have played fifty times as much.

Solutions
Brainstorming ways to fix this terrible, terrible game are counter-productive because its fans like it just the way it is. I generally think it’s a good thing when they fix obvious problems with my favorite old games for re-release, but then I tend to love the old games despite their flaws, not because of them.

My knee-jerk reaction here is to just point at Super Castlevania IV, because that game keeps all the fun and challenging things about the formula while changing or removing all the things that make me want to rip my hair out. Let’s pretend that’s a cop-out answer, though, and that turning Castlevania into Castlevania IV is not desireable, even though it would be totally sweet.

Let’s also pretend that we’re limited to small tweaks, rather than sweeping changes to the game. We’ll accept that the game is basically good, and that we want to keep as much of it intact as possible.

First, I would remove the first two levels of whips. The game drops the whip upgrades so quickly that you never play with the starting whip anyway. There is a weird edge case where instead of a whip upgrade you will get a double shot after you die and respawn. This means that once in a while, for no discernible reason, you sometimes have to play an extra screen or two with a short whip. There are maybe two spots in the game where this matters, and when it matters it is always “well, I got screwed” rather than “well, that was neat!” Learning the levels with the long chain whip is already difficult enough that learning backup plans for the leather whip seems unnecessary.

Next I would eliminate subweapons as random monster drops. Losing your advantages because of death really sucks, but it’s appropriate. Players should lose some state because of failure. Losing your advantages because a monster randomly dropped a knife, though, is abusive and adds nothing to the game. Players should never feel afraid of death drops in this sort of game; kill the monster, grab whatever it drops, and move on. Can you imagine if robots in Mega Man randomly dropped items that sapped your weapon energy? That’s what happens on certain screens of Castlevania.

Then I would alter the Level 4 and Level 5 boss fights, but only slightly. Both fights require you to watch multiple objects on the screen, anticipate their movement, and dodge accordingly. You can’t dodge them after they’re coming your way; at that point it’s already too late. I consider myself an average player, and I can’t win these fights unless I have the correct subweapon or phenomenal luck. I think that’s unfortunate.

For the Level 4 boss (The Creature), I would slightly increase the amount of time Igor stays stunned when you hit him, and add a slight delay between the time his stun wears off and his next jump. Alternating hits between Igor and The Creature is a good strategy, and I think players should be rewarded for discovering it rather than disappointed when they discover it but can’t do it because it requires insane timing to actually pull off.

For the Level 5 boss (Death), the problem is getting overwhelmed with sickles. I would leave the boss fight alone, but change the drops at the end of the level. Instead of health in the wall after the checkpoint, I’d put a double shot. Dealing with the sickles is a full-time job, and double crosses would go a long way to helping keep the screen clear. The fight would still be incredibly difficult, especially considering the brutality of the preceeding hallway.

As much as I harped on it before, I think I would leave the “keep your subweapon OR ELSE” stuff alone. I have to admit that the sense of grabbing a weapon and holding it forever is fun, and that requiring the player to have back-up plans in case their primary strategy gets shot down adds depth to the game. For the two tallest brick walls in the game, though, that back-up plan is “play perfectly, and maybe get lucky”, which isn’t the level of dedication the rest of the game demands.

A version of Castlevania in this state probably still wouldn’t be good, but at least it wouldn’t be terrible. And I think it would be close enough to what its fans love it for that they wouldn’t complain too loudly, either. Well, okay, of course they would. What I mean is, if the game were originally released with these changes in place, its fans would fall in love with it for all the same reasons, and not notice anything is missing. Then someone would release a romhack version where Igor recovers instantly and everyone would declare it to be bullshit.

Brick, You Are Stupid and This is Stupid
Yeah, probably! I mean, yeah, difference of opinion, not all games for all players, etc. I mean, I get why people love this game and why it is considered a classic. And I realize how unfair it is to judge the game by 2014 standards, or even by 1990 standards. I love watching speedruns of it (and of other games in the series which use the same formula), and I think it’s important to recognize the game as a piece of console gaming history.

Castlevania fans tend to love the game precisely for the reasons I hate it. That’s fair enough.

I really did think, though, that familiarizing myself with the game would change my outlook on it. That’s happened quite a lot in recent years, most notably with Final Fantasy Tactics, Metal Gear, Metroid: Zero Mission and Pikmin. These were all games I didn’t really understand when I first played them, but went back and learned properly, and now I understand where they’re coming from and what their merits are.

Try as I might, I still don’t see the merits of Castlevania. It’s mean and sour and stingy. It’s highs are low and its lows are really low. And revealing my distaste for it gets me called bad names by its fans like no other game I can think of. (Just tweeting out the premise of this article earned me two fuck-yous and an appeal to burn my house down. Playfully, I realize, but zow! What passion!)

I tried to love you, Castlevania. But you are terrible. You are the very most terrible and I never, ever want to play you again.

That goes double for you, Castlevania III.

Perlers!

I recently got back into perler beads. That’s where you buy 6,000 little plastic beads, painstakingly arrange them to look like video game sprites, then iron them enough that they fuse together but not so much that they melt into an ugly blob.

Here are some crappy cell phone pictures I snapped:

link_blondeA cute little Link I whipped up during one of our streams. This got mailed off to one of our viewers around Christmastime.

 

dekar_blurryDekar from Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. The coloration on this one is weird but I swear it is accurate. The picture is blurry because I am bad at camera-ing, but I didn’t bother to get a cleaner one because I don’t like the finished perler that much.

 

hoots_perlerHOOTS was a fan-favorite when I streamed Pokémon Red, so I made this to commemorate his awesomeness and also his birdiness. I took the sprite from the old pea-green Gameboy game, but added the coloration from one of the newer DS games, and I think it came out real, real slick.

 

mcdohlMcDohl from Suikoden. I really had to finagle the coloration on this. On the original sprite the dark yellows and dark reds bleed into each other in this mustard-y brown color, which looked awful when beaded out. Also the character is supposed to have black hair, but that looked awful too, so I changed it to brown, which looks better in my opinion anyway.

 

shantae_ironedThis gargantuan piece takes up six boards, and is my first attempt at a jumbo-sized perler project. The piece came out gorgeous, but I botched the ironing pretty badly. One day I’ll pin it to a backing board and put the whole piece in a frame, and it’ll flatten out and look pretty slick. I’ve made a couple more patterns at this same six-board size, which I’ll get around to doing someday maybe.

Thank you for reading this blog post about a grown man playing with plastic beads!

 

 

 

 

Let’s play Sonic Adventure 2

The Sonic Adventure 2 LP series is behind me at long last. Thank. Merciful. Christ. This series taught me quite a bit about how I need to approach game selections going forward, especially requests.

This game was requested for part of the Talking Time fundraiser, which came with a not-exactly-small price tag attached to it, and so part of me felt really bad for disliking the game as intensely as I did. I record my LP videos long before I start uploading them, and so with this particular series I reached a point where I knew I’d be uploading something very negative for the benefit of one of the game’s fans. The question became what to do about it. As I saw it, I had four options:

1) Do nothing, and just release the videos as-is, regardless of how bad they were.

2) Scrap the videos I had and practice the game long enough that I could beat it without trouble, then record that run of the game.

3) Change the tone of the LP to something really fake and self-depricating, to try and hide my contempt for the game. (I doubt this would have fooled anyone, I couldn’t have kept it up for 30+ videos anyway.)

4) Contact the donator, explain the situation, and reach some compromise.

In retrospect #4 would have been the mature thing to do, but at the time it felt like it would be a weird cop-out. Not only had the poor guy donated to see this game played, but he bought me enough PSN points to buy the game in the first place. I wasn’t sure if it would be appropriate to go back and tell him to pick another game, or tell him I was only going to play one third of this one, considering the fundraiser was originally pitched as “Brick will play whatever you want.” I also reasoned that, as a long-time fan, he would both expect and appreciate my honest opinions of his selection, even if those opinions were disagreeable to him.

In the end I went with a mix of #1 and #2. Sonic Adventure 2 is split into three sections: Hero Story, Dark Story and Final Story. (I knew about Final Story at the time, but pretended I didn’t for comedic effect, though I doubt that fooled anyone, either.) I trashed the videos I had already recorded for the Hero Story and then played it off-camera, start to finish, venting my frustrations on Twitter along the way. That one pass of the game gave me enough experience to draw these two conclusions: 1) playing the Hero Story a second time would be a lot easier and make for much better video, and 2) I now had enough context to play Dark Story blind, as was my original intent.

It turns out the first conclusion was correct but the second one was way, way wrong. The Hero Story videos still weren’t pleasant, but they were brisk, and I was able to split my attention between playing the game and explaining coherently why I wasn’t enjoying it. The Dark Story, though, is much harder and throws a lot of really awful gameplay gimmicks at you. Partway through recording I realized I was having the same problem I had in the Hero Story: awful game is awful, and is making for some awful video.

This time, though, I didn’t have the will to junk what I had and learn the game. I just wanted it to be over and didn’t care how terrible the resulting videos were going to be. If my YouTube Analytics were to be believed this was a big mistake. During this time I was alternating between uploading really negative episodes of SA2‘s Dark Story and a really boring and unpopular playthrough of Halo 4. Viewer retention and new subscribers both took a huge hit. I don’t make a lot of money from my YouTube channel, but the loss of about 60% of my sandwich money sent a very clear message: “Wow, if I were doing this frr rllz, and I actually relied on this income, I wouldn’t be able to make my fucking rent this month.”

While these numbers were dropping I also started getting very strong and negative feedback in my comments on each new SA2 video. Inexplicably, this goddamn game is a fan favorite among the Sonic hardcore. This is something I really didn’t expect these people would be so numerous in my own viewership, but in retrospect I really should have. It’s still very, very hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that there is an entire generation of gamers behind me, who grew up during the Gamecube era rather than the NES era. I tend to think of games from that period of time as “grown-up games” because I, myself, was a grown-up when they were released. I had forgotten how strong an attachment kids can form even with bad games, and how strong that attachment remains into adulthood. A lot of their defense of the game was based on emotion, which is exactly how I defend the questionable design of Final Fantasy and Mega Man when I get into it with modern gamers.

(In particular, a lot of their ire came in the form of “Quit your bitching, the game isn’t hard or stupid if you know [some precise thing only veteran players would know]!” I catch myself using this same argument whenever people rage about grinding in Final Fantasy, or swinging mechanics in Bionic Commando, and sometimes it takes me a while to remember it’s a bullshit argument. So while I never agreed with the SA2 fans commenting on my videos, I empathized with their position quite a lot.)

So what were my final thoughts on Sonic Adventure 2? I’ll summarize for those of you who didn’t watch the videos (and I don’t blame you!). Rather than itemize my list of complaints, I’ll just focus on the really big one, since I feel all the smaller ones stem from it anyway: the game is way too ambitious for the meager resources it was designed with. There are more gameplay styles, stage gimmicks and combat options in this game than in any single Mario game I can name. The design philosophy of most Mario games (even Super Mario Sunshine, which I despise), is to take a very small list of ideas and mold them into a full-featured game. Sonic Team seems to have done the exact opposite with the Sonic Adventure games, and cram every single idea they had into the game no matter how unpolished, how inconsistent, or how little it offered in terms of fun gameplay.

To put a much finer point on it: we know Nintendo can make a fun platformer, and a fun combat system, and a fun kart racer, and a fun farming simulator, and a fun shooter, and a fun puzzler, and a fun adventure story. But they never tried to stuff all that into the same game. No design team has those kind of resources!

The result of trying to wear too many hats was that all of SA2‘s hats were unfinished, uncomfortable to wear, and run the risk of setting your hair on fire. All of the resources that should have gone towards designing and testing a working camera system instead went towads driving levels. All of the resources that should have gone to making fun, playable driving physics instead went towards shooter levels. All of the resources that should have been spent making a fun rail shooter instead went into the optional farming simulator.

And what did I learn about recording LPs? I really need to pay more attention to what I’m uploading, and when. Halo 4 finished up while SA2 was still going, and gave way to River City Ransom, which saw an immediate turnaround in my slumping numbers. That was happy news, and I really should not have been surprised. The original reason I started doing updating my LPs two at a time was so viewers who didn’t like one of them still had some reason to watch me. If you’re not into watching, say, Riven, that’s okay, because tomorrow I’ll update Kirby, or whatever. But I lost sight of that, and so for a long span of time all I was offering people was a crybaby SA2 series and a boring Halo 4 series. I really need to not do that again.

More importantly, though, I need to really work on my attitude towards games I dislike. This is something I’m really bad at, and really need to improve. It’s come up a lot during streams, too, where I get angry and frustrated at a game and just end up embarrassing myself. I know the angry, rage-a-holic gamer archetype is popular on the internet, but that’s not what I’m aiming for. It’s a really shallow form of entertainment and it’s just not what I want to do with my work. There are positive ways to react to bad or frustrating games, and I need to get better at exploring them. To that end I have another “game I hate but am playing anyway” project in the works, and it’s shaping up to be a lot more pleasant than SA2 was. I’m hoping that experiment goes well.

I’ll hedge my bets with it, though, and not upload it alongside a bland first person shooter.

Thanks for reading, and sorry for the bad LP!

The Plot of Metal Gear (as concisely as possible)

One of the defining Metal Gear series is its incredibly dense and complicated storyline, a military fantasy epic filled with betrayals, amazing coincidences, pratfalls and switchbacks, double- and triple-crosses, supernatural and technobabble elements, and yes, a plot hole or two. It’s so difficult to keep all the schemes and players straight, in fact, that Kojima Productions released an exhaustive interactive document alongside Metal Gear Solid 4 which reads as a sort of Cliffnotes to the series. Even with that resource, though, it’s quite difficult to explain in short terms what the series is about.

My goal in this blog entry is to provide a concise resource people can point to explaining the series in the broadest strokes possible. Each individual game has a plot unto itself, of course, filled with fiddly details and twists and connections and references and retcons… but I’m not concerned with any of that at the moment. Let’s leave aside for a moment all the things that happen throughout the series and look at what it all means.

In the beginning, there was The Boss. For the purposes of the Metal Gear universe, we can safely say that The Boss is a symbol of perfection. Her ideal of a world without boundaries greatly inspired those who served with her, and her manipulation and death at the hands of her government had a deeply profound impact on those people. They formed an organization dedicated to preserving and fulfilling The Boss’s vision for the future. This group was The Patriots, and it was headed by Major Zero and Big Boss.

But neither Zero nor Big Boss were perfect (unlike The Boss), and so their interpretations of The Boss’s will was perverted. As a result, their methods deviated both from The Boss and from each other. Zero saw a world united through force, and worked to expand his military control and influence to that end. Big Boss, meanwhile, became obsessed with the idea of freedom from governments and other manipulating agencies. They had a falling out, and began working at cross-purposes.

Both Zero and Big Boss inflicted great evil upon the world. Zero became corrupted by absolute power, eventually leading to the creation of self-propogating AI systems that could control people down to the genetic level. Big Boss became the leader of several private militias, instilling in an entire generation of soldiers and mercenaries the dream of battle without adherence to a specific flag or ideology. Both men lost control over the systems they had created. Those systems took on a life of their own and began warring against one another with the help of nuclear-capable walking battle tanks.

One of Big Boss’s sons was Solid Snake. Snake had no knowledge of Zero’s machinations, nor did he share Big Boss’s obsessions. The world was a much simpler place, by Snake’s reckoning: regardless of country, creed or ideology, the world deserved to live without the fear of nuclear-capable walking battle tanks. Snake devoted virtually every moment of his life to saving the world from the disasters constantly brought on by his forebears. In this way Snake (and several of his close allies) fought for The Boss’s beliefs despite never being made aware of her existence.

In the end, Snake brings down the AIs and the private militias, leaving the world in a state much like what The Boss would have liked to see in her own lifetime. He bears witness to the deaths of Zero (who is too infirm to realize what is happening) and Big Boss (who is repentant of his course of action), and then exits the battlefield for good.

Whether or not the story has a “happy” ending depends on whether you consider Metal Gear Rising to be canon, I suppose. Other than that, I hope I’ve cleared it all up for you. Thanks for reading!

 

The Science of BONK: A Methodology for Quantifying the Violence in River City Ransom

Today I put the finishing touches on River City Ransom, which Dan (KefkaFloyd) and I played back in December. Please to be enjoying the playlist:

Throughout the LP I kept a running tally of how we were dispatching each dude. What sorts of violence were Dan and I most drawn to? The people had a right to know.

I had to go through each episode frame by frame and keep track of what was used to attack each dude. I was less interested in the actual number of dudes dispatched as the method of attack. Because of this, you can’t just add up the stats and get a final tally of dudes dispatched. As far as I know, Dan and I used every type of attack and weapon at least once. They are:

  • “Dudes punched”: dude is struck with the hand or fist, including the combo-ending uppercut
  • “Dudes kicked”: dude is struck with either foot, including jump kicks
  • “Dudes bonked”: dude is struck with a stick/bat
  • “Dudes trashed”: dude is struck with a garbage can
  • “Dudes whipped”: dude is struck with a chain/whip
  • “Dudes boxed”: dude is struck with a box/crate
  • “Dudes stoned”: dude is struck with a rock
  • “Dudes knucked”: dude is struck with a brass knuckle
  • “Dudes rolled”: dude is struck with a tire/wheel
  • “Dudes clobbered”: dude is struck with a pipe

Each of these methods of attack were counted once per dude. On the frame in which I confirmed the dude was attacked (that is, he makes his BARF! face), I incremented that particular counter by one. If the dude is later attacked again via the same method (e.g., a dude gets kicked by a player, then later gets kicked by the other player) the counter is not incremented a second time. However, if a dude is attacked via a different method (e.g., a dude gets kicked by one player, then bonked by the other) the counter is incremented once for the second attack.

ALEX and RYAN — the players — are not considered dudes for purposes of the count.

The origin of the attack does not matter, though this only comes into play when considering thrown weapons. Usually, dudes cannot hit other dudes, although once a weapon is airborne it will always damage its target, regardless of who threw it. A dude hit by a thrown chain counts as +1 “dudes whipped”.

In addition to the methods above, there were three more counters I felt were worth keeping:

  • “Dudes thrown”: dude is picked up and thrown (regardless of whether that dude sustains damage)
  • “Dudes glitched”: dude somehow clips into an obstacle and becomes un-targetable
  • “Dudes beaten with other dudes”: dude is struck by another dude, which one of the players has picked up

I don’t well understand how the game determines whether a dude is thrown or jumps free of the player’s grasp, so I counted all instances of a picked-up dude leaving the player’s hands as being thrown.

Technically, the “beaten with other dudes” counter should by necessity be incremented by two in each case, since beating Dude B with Dude A by definition also means Dude A is being beaten by Dude B, depending on your frame of reference. In the end I decided that a picked-up dude being used in this way temporarily counts as a weapon, and therefore “not a dude”. A thrown dude striking another dude would have counted +1 “thrown” and +1 “beaten with other dudes”; however, this case did not come up during any of our trials.

There were cases where two dudes were struck by the same method on the same frame. In these cases, the counter was incremented by two.

There were also cases where two attacks were launched by different sources at the same dude on the same frame. As far as I can tell the game does not allow two sources of damage to connect at the same time, so only one counter was incremented. Determining which one sometimes meant carefully measuring the direction and trajectory taken by the dude after being stricken.

This is all I have to say on the subject of dude science. Thanks for reading!

South Park, and Solving RPG Combat

There’s little point in reviewing South Park: The Stick of Truth. I can neither recommend it nor not recommend it. If you like South Park, you want to play this game, full stop. And if you don’t like South Park, you’re going to be so turned off while playing it that you might actually throw up in your mouth. It’s a sixteen-hour-long episode of the show with turn-based RPG combat. That’s either your dream game or a dripping, horrible nightmare.

Personally, I mostly loved the combat and was pleasantly surprised at how often the game featured environmental puzzles requiring more of me than “find the key then find the door”. I did run into a problem, though. I hesitate to even call it a problem, really, because I know a lot of players strongly feel it belongs in the “feature not bug” category. I know that because this same problem has cropped up in a lot of turn-based games recently. Just off the top of my head, I remember encountering it in Persona 3, the first two Paper Mario games, and all three Final Fantasy XIII games. I’ll describe it to you, and see where it gets me.

About halfway through the game — maybe a little less — I realized I could win every random encounter with this sequence of actions:

  • Get the first strike by hitting the monster on the map.
  • Use the attack that causes Bleeding (South Park‘s version of Poison) on all the bad guys.
  • Use Jimmy’s bardsongs to restore some PP and then put all the monsters to sleep.
  • The monsters all wake up from heavy Bleeding damage, but not before losing their turns.
  • Combine my “do shitloads of extra damage to Bleeding enemies” attack with my passive “take another turn when you kill an enemy” ability to mop everything up.
  • ???
  • Profit!

Okay, so I couldn’t resist sneaking in an Underpants Gnome joke. It’s not really appropriate here, because there is no “???” step. I had a perfect formula for winning every fight without 1) ever allowing any monster to have a turn and 2) ever using most of my player characters or special attacks. Indeed, there’s an entire type of magic I never used once in the entire game, until the very last battle where it was required to win.

Sometimes I would screw up the formula. Like, I’d be using some non-Jimmy character for their map ability, and forget to swap him back in. Or I’d botch the first attack and let the enemies get a free opening round on me. In these cases it was actually faster to just reload my save and start the fight over than to just play it out.

I don’t know how I feel about it. On one hand I never really got bored with the combat. I mean, the game just wasn’t long enough to wear out its welcome. And the game goes out of its way to let you skip a lot of combat by exploiting environmental hazards, which was fun. And, I don’t know, maybe the Killer Formula only exists on the character class I chose, and 75% of players don’t encounter it. Or maybe the fights don’t boil down so well if you play on Hard Mode, rather than Normal.

Or maybe not. Sometimes, if I didn’t reload after a botch and the monsters actually got a turn off, I’d find myself pretty deep in the shit. South Park is similar to a Zeboyd game in how quickly battles can turn against you. One bad round and you’re on the mat. Good thing for those friendly reloads! It very much feels like the game intends for you to find and apply the Killer Formula as early and often as possible.

I remember thinking of this as a flaw in Persona 3, where battles either went 100% in your favor, or 100% against, with very little middle ground. You either got the first strike and scored an All-Out Attack on the first round, or the monsters shoveled so much rapesauce onto you there was no way to recover. What that game, and South Park, and much of the back half of my beloved Final Fantasy XIII fails to convey, is a sense of heroes actually fighting monsters. Instead of going up against bad guys and having a damage/buff/heal back-and-forth, you are instead presented with a puzzle. Once you solve it, the game tests you by making you solve that same puzzle, repeatedly, for as long as you can stand it.

I want to stress that South Park doesn’t have enough combat for this to become really tedious. It’s a rare dungeon that has more than four or five encounters, as opposed to several hundred like in Persona 3. But I did notice myself reaching that point where I felt like, okay, I already know which six buttons to push, and in which order, and it’s not really engaging anymore. The game never challenged me to look beyond my Killer Formula.

Maybe the lesson game developers ought to learn is “don’t make your turn-based RPGs longer than sixteen hours”. Which… yeah, I could get behind that. We’ll go with that. Thanks for letting me think this one out, guys!