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.