Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I am sick of anticipation...

...and it's not for Christmas eve. Don't be silly, I live in the Netherlands. I had my Christmas gifts on the 5th of December. Did David Sedaris never tell you anything?

Anticipation is like this baby: you think everything will be perfect,
but then they start crying... Wait, where was I going with this?
Anyhoo, with my Internet claim to fame spamming my blog, there hasn't been enough attention for games recently, so let's talk about something I really hate about my hobby: anticipation. To those whose English is not very developed (like mine), I'm talking about 'knowing about a game and be very happy that it will be released someday.' The idea is that you then buy the game and be exalted (very happy) with the game play and all the pretty things and whatnot you will encounter whilst playing it. It's that last aspect that got me sick and not just because it usually isn't true.

The way triple-A gaming advertises itself nowadays is by making an announcement about a game almost a year in advance of its release. Usually this trailer shows us no game play, but it hints on that you will have fun by the time you will finally pop the disc in and/or finished the required download. The developer will tell about some features that will be in the game and that is about all you will know about it. If the game only vaguely sparks your interest, you won't be able to help it, but you will get this feeling inside that keeps tingling until you researched everything about it on the net. Ofcourse, this doesn't count for everyone, but you are reading this on this blog, so you'll probably fall into that demographic.

Just look how happy he is with
all that money...
This act should be legal, because it is a great way to generate buzz around a product and the triple-A developer needs momentum to sell his game. Through the months between announcement and release you will be shown a couple of new parts of the game, some new features, maybe even an early play of the game. This is to keep that tingle in your stomach fueled. If  for some reason the game is delayed, they'll ensure that it's necessary to make the game even better. This fuels that tingle even more. You don't care, because "It will be fun, the developer said so, so it must be true!" For months on end you will have this tingle forcing you to save up money to buy this ungodly expensive, but awesome game.

And then comes the moment when you'll actually shell out money to buy the game. It might be in pre-order, it might be on release or maybe a few days later, but you'll shell out that high price for that one game you've anticipated, because you want that cool game and you want to support developers who make good games. The moment you put that money down, all bets are off. The publisher has the money and neither the developer or the publisher has to do anything anymore, because they legally earned your money. The game you take home doesn't have to be any good, because you already gave them the money. This is the part that makes me sick to infinity and beyond.

Yes, you might return it, but the game doesn't have to be good in order for the player to keep it until after its latest return date. First you'll start checking your anticipation list. Are all features there? Are the graphics pretty? By then you won't have noticed that the game is designed as a skinner box and you are doing nothing but jumping through hoops when the game tells you to. Check my previous true post on how fun can be not fun.

In summary, what you'll need to know from the two links above is this: games can be rigged to make you work instead of having fun. They do this by giving you a reward for actions they wants to see from you, like killing people or winning a race, and punishing you when you do undesirable actions, like getting killed or losing the race. When you've learned that you get a reward, like an unlockable car or a skill level, they start to give you less rewards over time, so you'll work harder for the reward. The danger with this is that winning and losing and its derived rewards and punishments are an important part of the game, so it is hard to distinguish between the game's fun and addiction.

Portal 2; Great game, but was it worth the
What happens is that when you finally get the game and start to play it, your mind is rigged to "I have waited so long for this game, I'm gonna have fun, even if it kills me!" Nine out of ten games will engage you through addiction until you can't return the game anymore, if you can return or sell it at all. By the time it dawns on you the game sucks, it's too late. Your good review is online, your friends are on their way to the store to get that recommended game and the publisher is raking in the money.

And that's why I'm sick of anticipation. I'm sick of the whole scene of making people look forward to something that doesn't have to be good and will probably make you jump through hoops saying "later on it will be better, because you'll have this!" I'm sick of discussions on forums by people who like or dislike a game and trying to defend it, all the while forgetting that the game and its marketing rigged them to do so. But most of all I'm sick of reviewers creating more anticipation by giving a perfect score to a game that is clearly a skinner box.

As I try with most of my posts, I won't end on a sour note. What can we do to break this anticipation spiral? One answer would be piracy. Play the game first, then pay later. Unfortunately, this is illegal, but there are some good alternatives. First of all, you can play demo's. Second, there are services that can let you play the full game for free temporarily, like Onlive. When playing the game, check for any of the symptoms mentioned in this video of Extra Credits: the skinner box and if they are not too prevalent, the game might just not suck.

Also, Fall of Cybertron? Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Rat's and mazes, addiction does not equal fun

Since I am mainly busy with life and my internet claim to fame at the moment, this post won't be too long. I just came across something in modern gaming I didn't like. In coming posts I might just elaborate on it.

The thing I am trying to aim at is the fun in games. I did not experience it in quite popular titles I played the last months. Its presence is so self-evident that people forget to check if it is in their game or not. The problem in games is that fun does not equal addiction to a game. What makes the problem bigger is that fun is not quantifiable and other aspects on games are easier to pinpoint.

The problem is made even bigger by the way the industry is constructed. At one end of the line is the reviewer (and vocal gamers with blogs or reviews at distributers etc.). The best way they can pinpoint fun is with phrases along the lines of "I had a blast with this game" or "It might be fun for fans of the genre, but not me". Reviewers are far to often very keen to focus on game features, the quality of graphics, the way a story develops or the integrity of the program. While these might be things that spoil fun when done wrong, they don't necessarily create fun when done right.

At the other end of the line is the developer. This party needs to make money and wants the player to be hooked as much as possible. While fun might work, addiction is a stronger incentive and easier to achieve. Addiction is formed by shaping the game in such a way that the player receives a reward at the right time when playing the game. Over time the rewards are harder to get, which makes the player work harder for his reward. The emphasis here is on work, I deliberately did not use the word 'play'. Rewards can be obvious, like unlocking new parts of the game, but also subtle, like praising the player for winning and booing him when he has lost. Also: showing a reward beforehand gives extra incentive.

Yay, fun! Now with CRT and joystick!
This last mechanic is the one that bothers me most. People might be scared they (but mostly others in their direct environment) get addicted to games, because the people creating the games have more insight in human psychology than they do. Double scare points if the distributor is evil (EA, Activision, Microsoft, etc.). I couldn't care less about addiction, but once you know the one trick that makes you addicted (balancing the rewards) it is quite literally like someone explained the show of a magician and all you are left with is some guy who thinks he is smarter than you. The key difference: you can tell the guy and he'll stop, but the game just keeps on repeating the trick. Then things get annoying. When done right, you'll never notice, but you only need one game that tries too hard and then the magic of all the other games is shattered.

The point is that the reward mechanics get in the way of the game. First of all, someone constantly shouting "you're doing great" might be a nice incentive, but becomes ridiculous when done on a low difficulty. An animated meter showing your progress in points might be handy, but gets annoying when a separate screen is used for it when you want to go to a next level and the animations takes too long. Cut scenes explaining your situation in the story or how you need to play the game might help game play and immersion, but are annoying again when too long in length and double annoying when not skippable. Also, I might be paranoid, but I've got the feeling that in some recent games the quit-button is hidden from me at times. (play Saints Row 2 and Split/Second for PC to know what I mean)

Dawww, isn't he cute?
I noticed I get annoyed by these mechanics and I felt like a rat in a maze, so I tried to compile a couple of key elements that could quantify fun in a game. These elements should be universally applicable to everybody, but might have some influence of other aspects of the game, like a genre that appeals, pretty graphics or funny remarks by characters. These elements are: 

wide error ranges
A player should not be punished to redo a part of the game for a small error. To advance in the game no high standards should be expected from the player. Also the player must be well equipped for the game at hand. Bad examples: instakills, expecting a very fast race time to advance to the next track in a racing game, needing a ridiculous amount of shots to kill an enemy. Good example: grade while still progressing to unlock extra's that enhance game experience.

surprise, variety and juxtaposition
Monotony in grinding doesn't have to be a bad thing, but a surprise livens up a game. This can be an extremely powerful weapon or vehicle that makes the player dominate enemies for a short while or an extremely big enemy that suddenly bursts in the room. Common reactions should be along the lines of "ahahaha! How you like them apples" to "AAAAAAAAAAH, TAKE THAT! OH NO IT ONLY MADE IT ANGRIER!"

possibility to deviate
aka: the possibility to fuck around. A player should not only be able to win and finish the game in one specific way, this only creates frustration and gives a rat-in-a-maze feeling. A player should be able to create or choose his own style and he should be able to play with the game mechanics a bit. The best situation would be that the player can solve the game legitimately in a way the developer hasn't thought of.

These elements are just an hypothesis, but I hope to find some scientific work to either ground or alter them.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Videogames as culture: Okami

Whether videogames are art or not can become a great discussion if you want to make your point clear to either side, so I will not go into that. What videogames CAN be is a window to another culture. The most notable example I can give you might just be Okami, a cell-shaded RPG from the creators of Viewtiful Joe.

The original cover, also available on the WII
The premise of Okami is that you are a Japanese god sent to (around somewhere) feudal Japan in the form of a white wolf to save the people from some imminent danger. On this journey you have a celestial (read: magical) brush which can manipulate the world. As another weapon you have a mirror on your back that can double as a shield and is incidentally on fire.

Because I don't have that much money and the game is relatively rare (more than, say Call of Duty), I haven't really gotten around playing it until a couple of months ago. Imagine my surprise at the first moments of the intro when a brush comes into the screen to draw the story and the narrator starts this beautiful story in sim-speak.

Baffled as anyone would be, this is the tone the game gives to the whole religious premise. The sim-speak is just the tip of the iceberg. The game starts of with a tree-goddess reviving the white wolf, so the goddess of the sun, Amaterasu, can manifest its body. Most of the dialogue is taken up by a bug-sized, wandering guide who mostly comments on the warmth of the tree goddess's bosom, again all voice acting is in sim-speak. This is not how one would expect a magic journey to begin.

On her journey Amaterasu doesn't get much recognition either. Most people can't see her godly form, so she is mostly referred to as 'pooch', 'doggy' or 'furball'. She doesn't seem to mind, as any dog would. She falls asleep whenever humans have an exposition that takes too long or whenever the player doesn't use the controls for a couple of seconds. For the head goddess in Shinto religion she has quite a laid back attitude.

Dear diary, today I made a tree bloom.
Love, Ammy.
Amaterasu meets other gods on her journey, but they aren't role models either. There are 3 monkey gods that are very clumsy in presenting themselves. There is a warthog god that grands you a bomb-summoning power, but he gets blown up himself in the process. There is a leviathan that rests in a bottle with a cork and when it tries to get out to salute Amaterasu, the cork seems stuck and he just stays in the bottle whilst talking.The most peculiar of gods was Kabegami, who's name literally translates to "Wall god". The protagonist is technically a cross-dresser since Amaterasu is a woman, but the wolf ogles at every busty female and raises his leg when peeing. In case you were wondering: Yes, Amaterasu has a battle move where she pees on enemies. Yet, she is still greeted with "Amaterasu, origin of all that is good and mother to us all".

As I already noted in the paragraphs above, the game is absolutely blasphemous... if it was made in the west. In the west we see gods as something supernatural and fearful. Anything remotely sexy, especially sexist, is shunned by (strict and/or orthodox) Christianity and cross dressing is just 'not-done'. However, the situation is different in Japan, but to understand this I will put some things in perspective for you.

The great wave of Kanagawa, by Hokusai. I might post
about this masterpiece one day.
First of all one must understand the environment of Japan. To the contrary of places like Europe, Australia and the middle east, the surroundings in Japan don't try to kill you. The most dangerous animals you will find are foxes and maybe a blowfish. You won't be killed by lightning, because that stays mostly in the mountains, where you won't go, because they are holy. All volcano's are dead, but the ground is volcanic, so it is very nutritious to plants and you can grow anything. Food is so abundant in nature that archaeologists found small mountains of shellfish shells that were just refuge of prehistoric Japanese eating fish. You might die of old age, but that won't happen soon. Japan is one of the countries where most people grow very old and are still healthy. The most famous artist from the 18th & 19th century, Katsushika Hokusai, became 88 and worked on well after his 65th birthday.

This environment does not create a mentality to fear gods. Add to that the fact that Japan was practically closed off from the outside world during our medieval times and Victorian age. In medieval times the focus of our Christianity became warped from 'living good' to 'beware of the sin'. In Victorian times we became intensely prudish, shunning everything even remotely sexy. All these mindsets weren't imprinted upon the Japanese people. There is peer pressure to abide to certain rules, but these rules are different and mostly refer to your appearance in public. I can fill a full scientific book with when and where there was censorship on what in Japan, but let's suffice to say that Japan, although prudish at times, has hardcore tentacle porn in the same collections as classic art. (not making this up, google "shunga")

Nowadays Japan doesn't really have a "main" religion. People go to a Shinto shrine one day and read from a bible in front of their Buddhist departed altar on the next. The oldest religion, "Shinto", hasn't got an origin story and was mostly derived from local religious customs. It is not even entirely certain where the word "Shinto" comes from. In Shintoism, gods are not as much supernatural beings, but more like creatures who cause unexplainable things. Furthermore, these gods are inferior to man and are supposed to work for you, although they can be treacherous.

This totally happens in noh theater. Except for the wolf,
the bird in dress and the flying weapons...
The dress is authentic, though.
Having things put in perspective, the conclusion is a bit of an anti-climax. The silliness of the gods and their manifestations is just how the Japanese see their gods. Ogling over women has been part of Japanese literature for decades, although one should note it wasn't as present as it is in current Japanese pop culture. The cross dressing part of Amaterasu can be led back to the noh theater (not to be confused with kabuki theater) where all characters were played by men. They do not talk in sim-speak, however. That was just done to keep the production budget smaller.

Putting silly and 'naughty' aspects in a game about gods and religion might not be appropriate in the west, but if this game didn't have those elements, the creator's would have denied their own culture. Okami is a display of Japanese culture that is hard to understand for outsiders, but is a perfect display of what gives Japan the identity she has today. Being wise and serene on one side, whilst being silly and lechery on the other, Okami is a perfect window into the culture of her home country.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Let's try: Let's play!

Now, trying something new this week. Been wanting to put this up earlier, but got distracted. Here we have a first attempt to a let's-play video. This is all in a testing phase, but maybe I'll do more of this.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Returning with Streets of Simcity

Right, time to get back on track. The insane deadline month is now officially over, as it should be. It took me longer than a month and when such a month is over you always get clogged up with things you didn't get around to while you were busy. That didn't include this blog, as you might have noticed, so I've gone a bit rusty at writing to it. I wanted to return with a grand, philosophic post, but when the moment was there (1 week ago), I couldn't come up with anything. I'll just start with discussing a very obscure game this week: Streets of Simcity.

If this game was a classic, this picture would be
iconic. Now it's ironic.
Streets of Simcity, as lovely explained on its wikipedia page, is a racing <slash> car battle game from 1997 that let's you set the game in your own cities from Simcity 2000. Let that sink in for a moment: this is a game that lets you customise a racing car with rocket launchers, machine guns, claymore mines and oil slicks and then lets you loose in a city you might have build before, since almost everyone I knew had SC2000. The awesome charts are off the scale. Yes, everything was possible. You would run into bandits and slice them up with your guns. You could fire a couple of rockets at a building which would collapse under the explosions. There were even upgrades for your car to jump or hover which, when combined, even gave you the ability to fly. Just imagine you, flying around in a car, loaded with machineguns and rockets, while taking a look at the arco you built a couple of weeks ago when you were still mayor of this town.

I was never very good at this game, mostly because my computer couldn't run the game well on any settings. This was because the game took my 3DFX voodoo1 card by default and the accelerated game wasn't customisable. The software mode was even worse, because I had a 166Mhz pentium 1 with no MMX. It went OK when there were no enemies around, but only one car had to enter the scene and the framerate dropped to less than 1 per second. I then had to manoeuvre to aim my gun, hold the spacebar and hope I hit the other. After a while I went to a strategy where I took their attention, made an instant 180, drove away really fast and dropped mines. I never played much career mode, because I would fail at most of the missions, instantly getting stuck at the beginning of all the 6 careers.

Yay, the software engine! Just look at the
beautiful square smoke.
About that 180, it was reeeaaaally instant. You wouldn't believe how instant. The gamedesigners had this idea that a handbrake on the shift key would be nice and then started to give it other functions when given the right key combinations. shift+steer+down was a 180, like straight <BAM!> other way,  shift+steer was a hard steer and Shift+up was hard accelerate. You read that right; handbraking while accelerating makes you instantly get over the speed limit. There was even a possibility to strafe with your car while holding the alt button. This might be a bit weird design choice, but by the time your car can fly, who is looking at realism, ey?

Now I hear mister Cricket thinking: "If this game's so awesome, why haven't I seen it before?" Well, first of all, the engine is crap. Forget about the technical difficulties, like the heavy software mode and inefficient accelerated mode, the poor collision detection and the fact that it runs on windows 9X only, those are minor things compared to the major flaw originating from SC2000. Ever saw the roads in SC2000? Ever wondered how a car would get up a 45 degree hill, those blocks you get when building a road on a certain hill or the ramps onto the highway? Simple answer: you don't! The instant 45 degree corners in Simcity 2000 are not easy to take and they are just copied to 3D in Streets. The highway is not raised making a very weird flat surface over water and through the city. The highway ramps are pathetic heaps of rubble that make your car wobble a bit. In short: cities are for a large part undrivable.

If you had voodoo and you saw this many enemies
this picture was all you would see for 2 seconds.
With that in mind, the people who do know Streets of Simcity practically never give it harsh criticism, despite all its flaws. This might be because the game sets a great ambiance, even though the cities models look rushed, and there is a lot to customise. Within the packet of Streets of Simcity came a race editor and the SC2000 urban renewal kit, which is basically SC2000 without money or game element. You could make any environment you wanted and put a race-track through it which was all surprisingly intuitive to use. Even the skins were editable and the developers even went the extra mile by adding a blue-print bitmap for skins. I got a full 2 months of fun out of it before I even started thinking about other games.

If you liked SC2000 and you like to wreck a bit of mayhem, I definitely recommend Streets of Simcity. It's on e-bay for just a few bucks. I must warn you, though, that it will only work on MS windows 95 and 98. If you want to make it look pretty, try to find a computer with a voodoo card or try something with glide wrapper, but don't expect it to run smoothly.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Insane deadline month: the aftermath

The problem with being overly busy is that when the deadline is reached there is always this little bit of extra effort you need. You might have finished that paper, but in order for it to be validated, you will have to reread a little or do a bit of extra research. Mowing the lawn may tidy up your garden, but you need to rake the grass together for it to be perfect.

Case in point: my deadlines. I was relieved to find that the deadlines for the guest subjects were actually 2 weeks later than originally anticipated. This gave me room to breathe and relax a little, but also meant that I will be tense for two weeks more.

I disagree with Douglas Adams. I hate deadlines. I hate the stress they bring, the pressure on the quality of your work and the lack of nice whooshing sound they make when passing by. It screws up your life and gives you nothing in return. I just need two more weeks and then it's over.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Late; insane deadline month, week 2 and 3

As Douglas Adams once told: "I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make when they go by." You few readers I have might have noticed that I haven't posted last week. This is typical to an insane deadline month: when you have multiple deadlines, you manage to get one and then miss the other. Luckily for me, the deadline that gets me paid is well on its way. Too bad that the blog had to suffer and on top of that, the posts are shorter this month.

"So Snake," I hear you not thinking ,"what is it that gets you paid?"
"Thanks for asking, Mr Tumbleweed," I reply to the empty void,"because these guys are awesome!"

People who don't read until they end will never
know what this picture is about ;)
The company I now do an assignment for is called GamingWorks and is based in the Netherlands, my home country. Their website is filled with a lot of professional talk, but I'll put down what they do in simple English. These people work out games to play in teams with employees from other companies to do a little team building. The idea is that these games, or simulations, mimic a kind of company or situation where people have to fulfil a certain role. If, for example, there are problems in a company getting the morale up, these games can be used to lay bare the problems in the company. The most fun part: these people are good at it, very good.

My job is to digitalise a certain part of one of their games. When I first got the assignment I wanted to digitalise the complete tabletop game. This seemed to be a beginner's mistake, because that took out all the internal interaction that was needed to do the whole essential team building. As a game designer, I didn't design the game, but I now designed a part of the game that will make it all run smoothly. It was a fresh challenge for me to make a game that is not fully integrated in a digital world and I think I am pulling it off quite nicely.

GamingWorks trains game-leaders all over the world to let people play these games. So if you work at a company and want a fun day on the office, I suggest you contact these guys (and gals). Ask for "the game with the pizza" (sorry, not sure if I can disclose the full name of the game), that's the one I worked on.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Note to self: Insane deadline month, week 1

Today I will give you some advise: learn how to devide your time to reach your ultimate goal. Know what your ultimate goal will be and don't rush it. If you do rush it, you will get in the situation I am in now.

Putting it mildly: this guy probably feels better than I do.
It started off quite innocent: I wanted to do something with gaming, videogames or anything in that vicinity in my future life. I found the study and people who want to work with me on it and overall I've received more support than drawbacks. Then came the point where I didn't want to wait anymore and just pulled everything my way that might just slightly help me. I study at an university and I rigged my study program to be only about development, preferrably game development. I set aside everything that would draw me back, picked up guest subjects at another university and found an internship at a company that would let me develop software similar to a game.

This was a good move. But then came the point where I unintendedly sabotaged my future plans. All deadlines for everything that should take 2 or 3 months in total, is now due one month after this writing is posted. At best, I'll have to study and work 6 and a half working days a week to keep up. I am not the best worker and stress out quite fast. This won't be pretty, but I am gonna take it like a man. A man, with flimsy muscles,  and a slightly stronger-than-average reaction to caffeine, alcohol, asperine, camilla and practically everything that could rig my mood, forcing me to handle this month sober from EVERYTHING.

I write this down for the few readers I have. My absence will probably go past unnoticed. If I'll ever get 1K readers, it'll be much. For the sake of posterity, I will update here every sunday this month when I'll try to emerge as a future game designer or crush my dreams horribly. The obscure games will continue after the deadlines, in the mean time, have fun with the now freshly included splash image at the top of this page.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Pax Corpus

I'm a little late this time, sorry for that. I use this forum to present obscure games which are mostly worth playing. Today's game is worth playing, although not for the right reasons. It is obscure, though, very obscure for the right reasons.

Front cover of the game
Pax Corpus, created in 1997 by Cryo interactive entertainment, was meant as the first game adaptation of the Aeon Flux franchise. For reasons I haven't researched, it didn't have the Aeon flux name on it and therefore became just some mimic. The main selling point of the game were the ladies in the game, which all wear way too few clothes. It's all over the box art and for as far as I played the game, they haven't even put a male character in it. It's just too bad that the creators forgot 2 things:
1 - In 1997 Lara Croft was the best 3D rendered female character in western adventure games
2 - It's a game, not a dry hump porn movie

Something went terribly wrong with the game. The creators put as many scantily clad women in the game as they could, only to find out that the hardware wasn't powerful enough to render female curves. There was that and the creators were, quite frankly, terrible at drawing women. It's like the artist only knew the concept of 'women' as if they only read about it in a book the other day. All models look like robots with no female features. Even if they were robots, they would be robots with no cognitive vision (read: stupid) and a spine that is locked in one shape and one shape only: a straight plank. The breasts of the protagonist look worse than Lara Croft's first pyramid-shaped chest and her bottom barely passes the sexy test, but only because of some shades in the texture

You pass the sexy test... almost.
I haven't played this game much. At first I got killed by the first door of the first level. This was fun the first time, annoying at the second and a complete waste of time at the third attempt. It was only recently that I started it up again to show a friend what I thought was one of the worst games of all time. This time I got past the lethal door, only to find myself killed by a boss-person a couple of doors later. I really had no idea how to get past this 'boss', since she had a box to shelter behind and I didn't. Maybe in a couple of months I try again ;).

I might be flaming this game for being utterly bad, but I still suggest you play it, especially if you are not a native English speaker and even more if you're Dutch. Cryo made sure that everywhere it was released, it would be translated, including the voice-overs, by some (cheap) company while not giving the user the option to switch to English. Here in the Netherlands we only make new voice-overs for kids-movies, while everything above the 12 year recommendation just gets subtitles. This means that in the Netherlands Pax Corpus, recommended for ages 15 and up, got a voice over by people who are primarily experienced in kids cartoons.

You might get a partner later on, but I haven't
reached that point (yet).
Together with the fact that this 'action' game has clunky controls and choppy animations at best, the result is a game where a disabled lady in leather fights stupid robots while sounding like an 8 year old. There is a story behind it, but I gave up on that story already at 1 minute into the intro movie. The whole game is an experience that will make you question what the creators were thinking. They did it wrong in such a way, however, that it makes you curious to what will go wrong next. If you have the possibility to play it with a friend and you'll need a laugh, take up Pax Corpus, you won't regret it.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Dating Sims

No, I am not going to write about dating someone who talks in gibberish and has a diamond floating over his head, but I reckon you already expected that ;). In my gaming 'career' I have played some Japanese dating-sims and I had the luck to be able to understand the Japanese language. I didn't have fun, though. I did it all for science! No, really. I was writing my bachelor thesis about narratology and character relations in Japanese videogames and dating-sims do have a distinct aspect in this. If people ask me if I enjoy dating-sims, I always tell them that if I have to choose between playing dating-sims or poking my eyes out with a blunt screwdriver, I'll choose the dating-sims, because they don't inflict physical damage. There's no other reason, it's just because of the physical damage.

Good day to you, madam. And yes, holding your
arms like that shows off your female-ness.
Dating-sims are games, mostly from Japan, in which you meet a couple of people and your goal is to end up in a relationship with one of them. The interface is usually ordered with a picture on top with text accompanying the picture at the bottom and an optional background. There are dating-sims in all different kinds, but mostly it's about a boy trying to get a girl or sometimes vice versa. Not that I have tried, but I haven't registered any homosexual equivalent of the standard dating-sim lay-out. If you, dear reader, do know a homosexual oriented dating-sim, please let me know in the comments. Science will be pleased. I, however, will not.

Although it has been 4 years ago, I still feel a bit awkward about playing dating-sims for my bachelor thesis. When I started, I wanted to know the full scope of Japanese game genres and when I was in Japan I found dating-sims were almost everywhere. At first I was amused by how it all seemed to be designed for pussies. While we in the west see conquering women as a very muscle-masculine task, the Japanese dating-sim player has to find his feminine side. The graphics are usually drawn in pastel colours and the music is all high pitched, happy bouncy as if a horde of clown bunnies are going to declare world peace. I am NOT exaggerating. If you were to show a dating-sim to a unknowing western person and ask what s/he thinks is the gender of the target audience, s/he'd probably estimate it would be for girls.

Just like a dating-sim, initially this picture looks innocent
After the initial phase of laughter came the phase where I wondered if really all dating-sims were like this. Then came the phase of the horrible realisation that, yes, all dating-sims are like this. This phase was followed by the phase where I didn't want to be beaten by a stupid, pussy game like this. Thank goodness I never got to the moment where I'd actually conquer a girl. No, before that moment comes the phase where the aforementioned screwdriver suddenly seems VERY appealing.

The problem with dating-sims is that they are psychologically downright stupid in the way that characters are portrayed and how the developer imagines what the player thinks. Most of the time you do nothing but reading what is happening. Maybe you walk around a bit in the world, but I was mostly translating the text while in the mean time being ear-raped by the music that had long lost its comical aspect. If you are to strike up a conversation with one of the characters, the conversation will just roll out and you are mostly left with just 3 choices: engaging, neutral or repelling. When I interviewed Japanese people about their opinion on dating-sims, the lack of choice was one of the main complaints.

Taking a (sort of) girl to a flowergarden
Worst of all: there is no such thing as reverse psychology or anything. This was most apparent when I was playing Tokimeki memorial (your mental health forbids you to click that link) and I took the sporty/flower girl to a tropical flower garden. The conversation rolled out and I got my three choices:
1) Flowers are beautiful, aren't they?
2) You're not the flower type, are you?
3) Are those edible?

And, yes, the only right answer was number 1, the most soulless, easy-going, slime-ball answer of all. The other two just made the girl angry. I got curious and polled my female friends on their opinion on these lines. They unanimously told me their reaction would be the exact opposite, as number 2 would just be teasing and number 3 is plain hilarious at such a moment.

I admit I don't dislike all dating-sims, some are even fun to play, like the Sakura Taisen series. Sakura Taisen has quite well developed characters and besides dating girls, you fight monsters in a giant, steam-punk battle mecha. The good part is that Sakura Taisen isn't the only dating-sim with variance and depth. The bad part is that Sakura Taisen isn't the only dating-sim featuring the very under-age girl. The very under-age girl seems to be one of those standard characters that just HAVE to be in the girl line-up. Anime fans might also know such characters from Tenchi Muyo and Love Hina.

The kid from Sakura Taisen 3. To you she might
look cute. To me she's fuel for nightmares.
For me, the presence of these minor characters can get very disturbing, because my Japanese isn't that good and to suave the toddler you have to go with the choice that is incidentally the easiest to read. I just can't break the heart of a little girl and thus in Sakura Taisen 3 the top-rated girl was suddenly the kid, because she wanted to rescue a person with giant mecha and I agreed by saying "Let's go save Mr With-the-beard!". I got my mecha battle and she thanked me by creeping me out with the words "your voice gives me strength" every time she sliced a monster. If anyone wants to say Japan is wrong in tightening the rules for sexual images of minors, THINK AGAIN! Thank goodness again that I have never been able to finish a dating-sim with any of the characters by my side. I can't imagine how I am going to explain anyone why I might look like a pedophile in the game. It was all accidental? Yeah, right.

Although they might be horrible, I do understand the presence of dating-sims in the Japanese culture. It's not there because the Japanese would be a bit loopy, it is there for the same reason we have candlelight/harlequin pockets and girly magazines. The target audience, in our case 15 year old boys, has an insecurity or need for 'warmth' and dating-sims can provide it. It's not weird for boys to want to try girls in a controlled environment, practically every boy has been there. It does become weird, however, if one goes about taking these games seriously. I've only given a few examples, but the cheesiness and effed-up-ness that is portrayed as normal can get much worse than I described. If you ever find yourself playing a dating-sim, realise that most Japanese find these games revolting too. Furthermore, make sure there are no pointy objects lying close by, especially blunt screwdrivers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

GT racing 97

When I was a kid, I used to look through my parents's computer magazines for anything interesting. Most of the stuff was modems, connectors and all kinds of things I didn't care about until I started studying computer sciences. The thing I sought were the advertisements for game and game hardware dealers. For hours I would look for the best joystick and a game that would go with it. One of the games that always returned in every advertisement was GT racing '97. I didn't care about it and thus I never got to play it until a couple of weeks ago.

Just a man, his car and the somewhat open road...
GT racing '97 is a racing game created and published by Atari in 1996 in that period when they were called Infogrames. Where I live it was later re-released by Dice computergames as a budget-title. The game let you race a car that looked not unlike the hottest racecars from the 90's, with the difference that they couldn't licence the name. So, they let you drive an existing sportscar with a slightly warped name (like calling a Lamborghini Diablo 'the Devil') as if you are driving a cheap Chinese knock-off. They introduced a 3 point damage system which let you damage your tires when you drifted, your chassis when you crashed and your engine when you... did... stuff... 'kay I don't know how I could damage the engine, because it kept up the whole tournament without having to fix it. As expected, you could race tournaments where you had to fix your car in-between races as if you were participating in a rally all over the world. The tracks varied from everything in Europe to some tracks on the American continents. It's all nice varied and to be honest fun enough for me to play it.

I didn't play this game when I was a kid, so as an experienced adult I had no hard time getting through the game. I finished it with the difficulty to easy and didn't bother for another tournament afterwards. The game gives you a chuckle when you crash and explode, but that's the most fun you can get from it. When you get the car up to speed, which is after 2 seconds, the engine will stay in this one tone which will penetrate your ears for the coming 3 minutes it takes you to finish the track. The racing is monotone and mostly awkward to play. I quickly got the idea why I saw this game in so much advertisements back then: they couldn't sell it to anyone and were left with heaps of surplus discs.

Just one of those days in Stunts... You're off to
work and then suddenly: loopings!
The reason I chose this game to write about on this blog is because in its essence it is the embodiment of the transition games were going through in the late nineties. In plain English: This game failed for a very good reason. In the nineties, games were shifting from 2D to 3D, which had its greatest impact on racing games. The biggest hurdle for the player in racing games is taking corners. In 2D racing games it was a matter of speed if you could take a corner, but your car would always point with its nose in the way of the curve. This was because it was very hard to draw a car turning on a track when looking from behind. There were top-down racing games where you could turn, but these had the problem that you couldn't always see what was coming.

Lotus at its best: Multiplayer!
When 3D came along everything (turning and seeing what was coming towards you) suddenly was possible at the same time. There were already succesfull 3D racing games as early as 1990 like the popular stunts, but the 3D usually included a kind of graphics that were not particularly easy on the eye. As seen in another popular racing title, Lotus from 1992, other designers still preferred the 2D engines.

As a comparison, the layout does look like a 2D
racing game
The peculiar thing about GT racing '97 is that, although it is 3D, it has the layout of a 2D racer. You can't really spin your car (although you can turn and drive back), drifting has only use for damaging your tires and scenery tends to just pop up and repeat itself. It makes itself even more classicly oriented by adding a lives system to the mix and by giving the cars funny names. By 1997 Need for Speed 2 already came out, which was way more realistic than GT racing '97. GT gave us a nice laugh about an age gone by, but NFS2 already heralded what was to come. To be honest, even though its publisher has become evil, I prefer the latter approach.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Gigawing, or: "Getting killed and still be proud of it"

One of my friends went to Japan and asked me if I could give her a list of games she could get for me there. Yesterday she brought me the games, under which was the sequel to one of my favourite games: Gigawing 2. We won't discuss that game, since I haven't had time to play it yet. Instead we will discuss one of my favourite games, the prequel to Gigawing 2:...<wait for it...> Gigawing!*

Gigawing is a side-scroll shooter (with planes) that was developed by the Takumi corporation and published by our all time favourite Capcom. Initially it was meant for the Japanese arcades, but they also ported it to the Dreamcast. Gigawing has your average upgradeable bullet-shooting and screen-wiping-bomb-throwing, which would already make it a decent side-scroll shooter. The controls are fluent, the music is awesome and the characters that fly the plane are actually likeable and deep (for as far as a shooter permits).

The developers could have kept it that way and go drink some Asahi at the nearest bar afterwards. I think they did that and then one of the people on the team came up with a new weapon. The situation must have played out something like this:

Trust me, this beer is good.
Tanaka took a last sip of his beer, put the glass on the bar and just stared at it for a while.
"You know what, Takahashi, I think the game needs just one more weapon."
"What do you mean, Tanaka? Isn't it nice already?"
"Nah, it's too bland. I want a shield that can deflect bullets with a bit of recovery-time, so it doesn't get too overpowered."
"How can that be usefull when they can just dodge the bullets?"
"We add a shit-load of bullets, that's what we do."
"But how do they shoot the enemies if there are so many bullets?"
"With the deflected bullets."
"But why would they want to do that when they can just shoot them?"
"Because deflected bullets spray bonus-point-items when they hit an enemy."
"SINCE WHEN DO BULLETS... ooh, I see where you're getting at."
"And the bonus's worth increases every time you pick one up without dying."
"I like it! Tanaka, to the Batcave!"
And thus Tanaka and Takahashi went to the studio, implemented the idea and got alienated from their wives and kids, because they spent too much time at work like every other Japanese father. Life was miserable, but the game was great...

Playing Gigawing is insane. Bullets are all over the place and every other moment in the game you switch between these thoughts: "Bugger! How am I going to dodge all those upcoming bullets?!" and "Bugger! How did I just survive that armada?!". You've got extremely overpowered weapons and the enemy has extremely overpowered numbers. The longer you stay alive, the more every bonus increases in worth, creating possibilities to insane scores. The emphasis is on 'staying alive', since although there are an insane amount of bullets flooding the screen, the game has a 1 hit kill and a maximum of only five lives for you to survive all seven levels. The developers didn't bother and just give you unlimited continues, but they have an alternative ending for you if you finish on just 1.

This is considered a breeze in Gigawing
When I first played this game, I went through a couple of levels and didn't know what to do with the deflective shield. I fiddled around a bit, but I quickly got the hang of the deflecting, since the pacing of the level actually takes the recovery time of the shield into account. Sometimes you fly through a quiet breeze and other times you fly through a bullet cluster-fuck as if they just summoned a great old one. Deflecting bullets at an Armageddon moment brings the framerate down to half its original speed. This was probably unintended, but it always gave me a nice couple of seconds to replace myself on a quiet place on the field, so I wouldn't get shot during recovery. This only helps you to a certain amount, because further on the game sprays bullets 24/7. I need more than 10 continues to defeat the final boss.

I never made it to the alternative ending and frankly, I don't want to. I made it to the third level on one continue and that will be enough for me. After that, the levels only get harder and harder. The game tends to push you into a kind of trance and if I were to win it, I guess I should be sucked in even further and that's where it gets creepy. I found a walkthrough once by someone who worked out all the good endings. There are 4 pilots, so that makes 4 endings you have to reach on 1 continue. (Note: in multiplayer mode you have different stories for every combination of pilots, so the total amount of endings is [4 single + 6 multiplayer] times [good and bad ending] = 20 endings) This guy only went for the single player endings to document in his walkthrough. Note that people who write a walkthrough try to distance themselves from the game to be objective. This guy certainly tried, but he ended his walkthrough with this:

As for a last comment, I just wanted to state something about the 20 different endings. You noticed that these endings are the result of different paths taken, much like in life. Now, I may sound a little cheesy here, but try applying this to real life. Look at how many different paths you can take and realize that nothing is ever set in stone unless you make it out to be.

This creeped me out immensely. The writer certainly is a nice guy, he made us a walkthrough and was so nice to wish us well in life, but Gigawing =/= life! It began to dawn on me that to get the perfect ending and the additional, unlockable 5th pilot, I had to hand in not only a lot of my time, but a bit of my sanity as well. I hope the guy is okay, since I can't really find recent work from him. Dingo Jellybean, if you are reading this, mail hi to your fan Snake, will ya?

Comparing Gigawing to modern day games, one aspect begins to emerge in my mind: balancing, trying to make the game just hard enough so the player keeps playing. In current games (or even less current games), the power of weapons and enemies is restrained, so the game stays clear and the player can play through. This can be apparent on occasions in which sub-machine-guns turn out to be useless or terrifying enemies turn out to be easy to beat. Gigawing throws the concept straight out the window by overpowering everything just to see where it leads. For some inexplicable reason it is still fun as hell. It's the most recent game I can think of one will just play for the score, because every moment is a conflict in total panic that will either end in "hahaha, I survived that" or "Fudge! hahaha, I'm dead." Either way, you won't care for the ending, this game is purely played for being a game that's just insane.

* note from first paragraph: yes, I am aware that I shouldn't try to screw with the English language when I am not that experienced with it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Catch-up or "How a game mechanic killed the racing game"

Before we begin I'd like to make one thing clear: I am not a native English speaker, I am Dutch. This should come as no surprise to you, since my English might come off a bit odd. I must admit it's rather embarrassing if you go public with your ramblings, only to hear from a friend that your English is blatantly infested with Dutch grammar. I hereby promise to do better by typing all my posts in Linux. I currently using Ubuntu 10.10, which uses a spell-check on every window you type in. It won't take care of the grammar, but it's a start nonetheless.

This pun is so bad, it doesn't
deserve a caption.
Today I want to discuss a game-mechanic that is not so well known, yet overly present in more games than we'd like: catch-up, more specifically catch-up in racing games. The idea behind catch-up is that when a player is reaching a goal or has the upper hand, the game does something to be harder to beat and when the player isn't the one in PWN-status, the game gets easier. In racing-games this means that cars slow down when you are in last place and speed up when you are first. While using catch-up, the game has a variable difficulty curve that adapts to the player's skill. This way the game is supposed to stay exciting.

I first saw the use of catch-up in my favourite racing game of all time, Motorhead. It was all very innovative back then, it had a kind of wow factor and the designers were nice enough to give you the option to turn it off. In motorhead it was not as forgiving as you might expect. If you crashed too often, you still finished stone dead last. Yet, if you were able to let your competitors really eat your dust, you were still the racing champion.

Then things got ugly when Electronic Arts got their hands on the catch-up mechanic. I haven't researched the exact time when EA implemented catch-up in their Need for Speed and Burnout series, but it wasn't in NFS 3, yet it was implemented in NFS Hot pursuit 2, Burnout 3 and NFS: most wanted. You can tell by the way the cars react to you, but more on that later.

Ofcourse, sometimes it IS your fault
As always with EA, they used the dark-side-straight-from-hell version of this mechanic. In championship mode they first give you a catch-up set to let you win, just slowing down cars when you are behind and doing nothing when you are up front. Then, when you get to the later stages, the mechanic is thrown around with a bias to let you lose, just speeding up cars when you are first and let you rot when you are last. This was especially apparent when I played Burnout 3. So apparent even, that I noticed I only played for the skinner box factor, that my personal life suffered from it and I instantly sold it to save myself. I don't know if this bordered to addiction, but it's better to be safe than sorry.

The catch-up mechanic combined with the Skinner box principle made me genuinely afraid to play any racing game after that, especially EA's. That's also the reason why it took me a couple of years to try NFS: most wanted. I saw people having fun with it and I wanted too, but Burnout 3 was still too fresh in my memory. When I finally got the courage to play it, I tried the following test to see how strong catch-up was implemented in the game:

- Find a race you have a hard time winning
- Wait for the start-signal
- Wait 30 to 60 seconds while your opponents race away like hell
- Start racing
- Be the first to cross the finish line.

I succeeded the first time and I didn't even try. Then I tried some other things that let me to these conclusions:

- There should be no need to upgrade your car. If you lose, you are just having a bad day. Somewhere along the line the catch-up is altered by the upgrades to your car. This showed when I had a fast not-upgraded car and a slower tweaked one. The specs favoured the other car, but I won with flying colours with the slow tweaked one.
- Your performance throughout the race doesn't matter until the last part of the last lap. Your opponents are constantly fiddling between racing in front of you and racing behind you. It doesn't matter how skilled you are, if you slightly screw up near the end, you lose. This morphs a race from exciting to merely waiting for the end.
He might look bad-ass, but it's all in the script
- Some races are scripted. You read that right: scripted! There was this boss/opponent (Earl, number 9 on the black list, driving a Mitsubishi Lancer) I had difficulty with beating. He overtook me every time I came near the finish-line. It didn't matter how long it took me to get there, if I was in front, he would overtake me. The scripting in NFS: most wanted got my attention when I crashed the opponent into a wall 3 times and he would stay there until he went off the radar. When he was off the radar (or on the edge of it, to be precise) the arrow depicting him instantly changed directions and started to move as if he was on the road again.

I felt like I fell for the same trick again and dealt with it the same as last time: I sold NFS: most wanted. The store didn't want it. I gave it to them for free.

Today, I don't really hear people a lot about racing games and to be honest, I can't really find them anymore. There is Need for Speed, Gran-Turismo and some single titles like Blur or Split/Second, but none of them seem to scratch the particular itch for anyone. There is also no racing title the industry wants us to look forward to. In my opinion the racing genre is practically dead. There are more reasons to it ofcourse, but the abuse of catch-up is definitely one of them.

And you can always play RR4 for her.
I won't end on a sour note though. If you want to play a racing game that doesn't use catch-up and also doesn't cluster the opponents (a bad trait usually seen when catch-up is omitted), try Ridge Racer type 4 for the playstation. The series are still being developed, but I haven't gotten around to play the other titles from the Ridge Racer series. Knowing the industry, the mechanics are probably the same every title. Ridge Racer tends to put the player in a race where s/he keeps overtaking opponents one by one. The physics are fun to race and it doesn't give you the oh-no-I'm-losing feeling you usually get from NFS or Burnout. Thanks for reading, see you next week!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Karma-beer, a game IRL

Before I started this blog I made plans to only give constructive ideas and positive reviews about old, obscure games. Constructive ideas are not a big problem, but I am not the biggest authority on gamedesign (yet), which will make my ideas only look retarded if I try to flesh them out too much. Yes, this is indirectly stating that my hypothesis of three weeks ago was not as good as I hoped. The other problem is that there are not as much good, old, obscure games as I hoped to be out there. A couple of weeks ago I went to an outlet store with a lot of old junk. I spend more money than I'd like to admit whilst entertaining my friends with the rediculous sight of me walking out with an insane pile of cardboard PCgame boxes. In that pile of games I found 1 really noteworthy game and the rest was just mediocre or at least not recommendable. Then there's the problem that I am a huge fan of arcade(y) racing games and that this place is called "video game legacy" and not "racing game legacy".

The biggest problem, however, is that I want to have played a game to its fullest before recommending it. If a game is too long or repetitive halfway through, I'd like to be able to tell that. This shouldn't be a problem, but I also have a life which I'd like to maintain. If I want to be recommending games every week, then I have to finish a game every week. Since the trend is that modern games are getting shorter, you should be able to imagine that I have to put more time in these old games, which makes me conclude that if I want to maintain this blog on its original idea, I have to start playing old games 24/7. This. I. Refuse.

So, to lengthen the life of this blog, I hereby broaden the scope of this blog to individual experiences in/with games and some real-life happenings as a gamer/soon-to-be-gamedesigner. The best way to do this is to make this post a cross-over between every category of this blog: a recommended real life game I experienced as a soon-to-be gamedesigner.

The pitcher, your most valuable tool
You will need:
- 2 or 3 talkative friends which you haven't spoken for a while or a couple of days
- just a bit of money
- a place to go where they have beer and you have some loose contacts, like your favourite pub or bar.
Make sure your place has different sizes of glasses for serving normal beer.Where I went you had the normal glass, the bigger glass, the pint-sized mug and the pourable one litre pitcher.

Go to your place with your friends and buy all of them, including you, a pint-sized beer. Whilst starting on the pints, buy 1 pitcher as a supply for the group. Now start talking about everything that could be interesting, like what happened on vacation or where you got that scar from.

Your story should be luring people in by now. Keep the circle a bit open and make sure you are on a spot where a lot of people walk by. When they have a seat to listen to your story, give them a small glass and pour them a beer from the pitcher. Congratulations! They can't walk away now.

After 2 or 3 people are lured in, the pitcher is probably empty and its time to use the trick of hospitality. You gave them beer, so they are now obliged to buy the next pitcher. Let them pour more beer in your pint and reward them with more awesome stories. As karma goes, more people will be lured in by the stories and beer and as it went before, they too are now obliged to buy a new pitcher for the whole group. There is a big chance your vague contacts were to meet with their friends, so they too will join the group buying beer. After a while, you don't even have to tell stories anymore and just wait until the next new guy buys a new pitcher.

Warning! Try this at home, but, for the love of your mom, KNOW TO FEEL YOUR LIMIT! You possibly can't count your beers.

Like taps to world peace. ;)
So, how did I play it? Even more: how does one come up with this? In that order: very well and by chance. The night we came up with this, we were already at the second round of a new guy buying a pitcher. Because we had large glasses and the rest didn't, our beers were refilled before we even had the opportunity to finish them. We just saw a loophole unfold before our eyes and by the second pitcher the group had already achieved a self-sustaining cycle. We all got wasted while we still had our first glass in our hands. I stayed way longer than I initially planned, just to see how far the group would grow. At its maximum it had like 30 to 40 people in it. They were all enjoying themselves, telling whatever happened to them and every time when the pitcher was empty, the new kid established him/herself by buying a new one (or later on even two). Most people barely even knew one another, yet they shared their life and beer. It was simple and yet heart-touching.

There was also the fact that everyone was drunk. That was bloody hilarious.

My friends refer to this game as "that night we have to try again sometime". I call this game: Karma-beer. I recommend you play it.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Need for Speed: the very first beginning

It is times that I really feel old, being shot to pieces in multiplayer by people who call themselves 'Lollybomb1997'. Roughly calculating that my assassin would be 13 by now I recall that when I was that old, I wasn't even allowed on the internet. Mind you, that was because we had dial-up and my parents were expecting calls. The multiplayer was mute, so I couldn't shout at him that everything was better in my days. The other reason I can't do that is because I am glad gaming has evolved in many ways since the 90's, including gameplay-wise, . There is one series, though, that really was better back then: Need for Speed.

The almighty NFS2SE splash screen
I am particularly referring to Need for Speed 2: Special Edition. Yes, back in the day they numbered their games. It was also a day when Electronic Arts wasn't as evil as it is today, as in it wasn't vacuming up every successful small studio when it was having a hard time. It was a growing company that was trying to establish itself. I never played Need for Speed 1 or #2 not so special edition. EA has made it their lifetime mission to make those two disappear.  Later on I found an abandonware download for 1, stripped down and without music like a 90's illegal copy.

Need for Speed 2 SE was awesome. You had dreamcars that raced through fantastic places all over the world at insane high speeds. The cars were divided over 3 classes: A, B and C. If you were good at racing a campaign or a knockout (or you just used cheat codes) you could earn 3 fantasy cars and even a bonus track. I know that the rewards for winning a race are slightly higher nowadays, but that was how it was then. That said, you can't find cheat codes to unlock things nowadays.

Every track had some kind of wow factor. You would race on a rope bridge and past a plane-wreck in the Himalayas, into a volcano in the jungle, past the landmarks of Sydney in Australia, through tiny villages while making insane jumps in Greece and much more. There was even a tunnel on the speed-ring track (proving grounds, for those who played it) with some glowing pipes which were there for no reason but to make the track look cooler. The most awesome track was the bonus track in Hollywood. There were prop-dinosaurs, a future dystopia set and a straight part of road racing through what looks like star wars! And that was before the dreadful episode 1!

And there was always the cheat to drive
a school bus
I've never been good at these old racing games. Maybe it's me, or maybe it's the game physics, because the cars steer not that realistic. Everyone did with these games the same thing I did: find cheat-codes in your favourite game magazine or the internet, if you weren't expecting calls. In those days, the amount of cheat-codes was vast. The internet changed things rapidly as NFS2SE might be among the last games I searched magazines for codes for and the amount of cheat codes nowadays are mostly limited to a couple or none.

Knowing EA and since NFS2SE put Need for Speed on the radar, you might think that NFS3:hot pursuit (not the one coming out this year) improved on that and made the series even more awesome for me. Short answer: no. NFS3 made the series more popular than ever before by adding police pursuits in the mix where you could play the police. Yet, they dumbed down their tracks AND their cars. The dreamcars were replaced with just expensive cars while the unlockables were now the dreamcars and not the fantasy cars. Instead of 8 different tracks in places all over the world they stuck to 4 tracks with 2 different layouts making 8 tracks total only in places in the USA. The ferrari 355 went from class C in NFS2 to class B in NFS3 while the car stayed the same. The tracks were boring! There was one tracks which main feature was just being snowed (summit, if you really want to know). Where you drove through a volcano and Hollywood in NFS2, the best thing they came up with in NFS3 was a dinosaur skeleton and the EA building. The EA building! Did those people never hear of hubris? Ofcourse NFS3 got more famous, so I stand in the wrong here.

To me it only went downhill from there. The follow-up to NFS3, 'high stakes' or 'road challenge' depending on where you live, introduced other countries again along with more 'just expensive cars' like BMW. For some reason the game always crashes when I boot it, so I never got to play it. The follow up to that was 'porsche 2000', a need for speed with only one kind of 'just expensive car'.

The Jaguar XJ220 does pass the test, though.
Let me explain why I don't like 'just expensive cars' like BMW's, Porsches and Mercedeses in racing games. In a racing game I want dream cars like Ferrari's, Lamborghini's or Lotusses. These are cars that are awesome, fast and highly impractical in daily life, so you race them in the game. 'Just expensive cars' are not dream cars, because the people who dream of them usually own one already. The real experience will always be better than the game. You can't just put any expensive car in a racing game and expect it to be cool. A test for this is take the name of the car, put the words 'last year's' before it and see if it still makes you feel like a little boy. Last year's Ferrari F355 passes the test, last year's Toyota Celica doesn't and what about last year's BMW 5 series or Jaguar XF for that matter? All of NFS2's cars pass this test, except for the mustang, but that's a C class so it doesn't count <sticks out tongue like a 7 year old>.

The best example of my problem with Need for Speed (apart from the catch-up system which I will discuss some other time) came with NFS: Most Wanted. In the game you can mod your cars and challenge people from the 'black list'. Ofcourse the Asian driver drove a modded Toyota which came with 2 other unmodded Toyota's as escort.  EA got the licences for those cars so they got money for product placement and I played Most Wanted 4 years after its release. That made those cars literally last year's Toyota's. I know soccermoms driving those cars! The cut-scene was meant to intimidate, but already a couple of years after its release it looked immensely stupid.

Last year's McLaren F1... Hell yeah!
EA is currently having trouble selling the NFS series. After Porsche challenge they had the same problem and rebooted hot pursuit. They did the same this year by rebooting hot pursuit again creating the biggest brainfuck in gaming history: a chronological order counting backwards (1998: NFS3: hot pursuit, 2002: NFS hot pursuit 2, 2011 NFS: hot pursuit). By focussing on brand advertising and realism, they cut the best part from the NFS series: dream and fantasy cars and race-tracks with a wow factor. Most Wanted was said to be the best NFS in ages, but even that episode seemed quite bland and just repetitive to me. Furthermore I never heard anyone get excited about a NFS title after that. If EA wanted advice and asked me, I'd tell them to take a good look at NFS2. Even today the game is still fun and awesome. It makes no compromises for money and just goes incredibly fast, features that modern games are just lacking.