Chrono Trigger -or- The Aging of Games

I’m not a huge console jockey — I used to be, but PC games (in my opinion) quickly outstripped the quality and quantity of content in console titles by the middle of the PS2’s lifespan. Plus, it just costs a whole lot of money if you’re trying to maintain multiple systems and purchase games that you blow through in less than 10 hours, so for the most part, I stick with my computer.

There is one notable exception to all this, and that’s my trusty little pink Nintendo DS. (Why pink? Because my sister-in-law bought it for herself, got bored, and gave it to me for my birthday… and I’m not embarrassed about color.) I’ve had a portable Nintendo system in one fashion or another since the late 80’s, because it really fits the bill when I’m traveling or away from keyboard (i.e. quality bathroom time). I don’t game on my DS a lot, but I did enjoy and beat Professor Layton, Elite Beat Agents, and dabbled in Final Fantasy IV.

For Christmas this year, my wonderful wife bought me Chrono Trigger, somehow using her woman’s intuition that I would appreciate such a gift. Also, I wouldn’t stop yammering on about it since she’s ever known me. I even once had a factory-sealed copy of CT for the SNES that — in the interest of paying down debt — I sold on e-bay and have mourned since.

I wouldn’t say it’s my all-time favorite game, but it’s easily in the top 10. During a summer break from college, I have fond memories of playing this in my parents’ basement (cue bad nerd joke) and loving the crap out of it. It was perhaps the nadir of SNES RPGs — the “dream team” of Square developers who crafted a game with great music, a terrific plot, interesting battles, memorable characters and — best of all — time traveling. If you haven’t ever played it (young whippersnappers!), it’s kind of like they crafted an entire world (albeit a small one) that consisted of several eras that you could jump back and forth in, changing the timeline to help save the day.

Happily playing it these past couple days, I was thinking about how games age different than most entertainment media. It’s safe to say that video games have the shortest lifespan when compared to movies, books, music and television, mostly because of the technology and innovation that has been exponentially ramping up since the late 1970’s. A game purchased and played today will probably look and feel somewhat creaky in five years, and downright archaic in 10. Lifelong gamers have been accused of letting nostalgia tint their view of past games over current ones, and I’ve seen not just a few haughty game journalists lecture such people to just let those games go, admit that they’ve aged terribly, and wallow in the excellence of modern gaming.

I call bull on this. Really. Yes, some games age poorly — early 3D graphics are just painful to look at, some gameplay is downright simplistic or unwieldy compared to today, and for the most part, innovations in the industry have moved us forward, not back. Yet I would argue that older games still have purpose and lifespan, especially some of the classics that don’t depend as much on graphical prowess or machine power.

There’s a reason why casual gamers still play Pac-Man or Tetris on flash web games or in XBox Live Arcade. There’s a reason why teenagers who weren’t even alive when the SNES came out love to pick it up and play a couple of rounds of Street Fighter II or Contra 3 in my office. And there’s definitely a reason why companies keep re-releasing older games on new platforms (yes, it’s about money, but people pay the money on purpose).

Some gameplay is just timeless. Some stories transcend the limitations of the technology to burrow into our minds forever. And sometimes a game that remains stuck in the past can be a fascinating portal into our own past, a snapshot in time.

Chrono Trigger might be just tiny sprites, a very rudimentary character development system, and (ho hum to some) menu-driven gameplay, but to me, it’ll always be a terrific game to challenge my interest in anything new that comes along.

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MMOs: The Savior of PC Gaming?

The San Fransisco Chronicle stated that 2008 was the “year of the MMOs” — those massively multiplayer RPGs that took the lion share of press, players and dollars away from single-player titles. Not that 2008 didn’t have some incredible single-player games, like Fallout 3, but MMOs are proving themselves to be the Big Boys in the PC market, which might be incredibly weird to folks who only play casual PC titles or are console only.

Even with incredible failure rates (such as Tabula Rasa, which lasted only a little over a year before NCsoft shut it down — throwing away a rumored $100+ million in development costs), companies just aren’t going to stop attempting to scale the MMORPG summit, because the rewards are more than worth the risks. I think of them as highly expensive machines that are very complex and labor-intensive to build, and only work really well a small fraction of the time, but if you manage to get one revved up right, it’ll start pumping out money like nobody’s business. It’s not just World of Warcraft’s 11.5 million subscribers, but also Ultima Online’s 11 years of profitable income, with no definite end in sight. These are monster machines, have no doubt, and they’re being built all over the place.

MMOs might not be the be-all end-all savior of PC gaming — as long as people buy computers, they’re going to buy games for them too — but they’re a great stabilizer. Engines that are developed for MMOs can be used in single-player titles, and vice-versa. The sheer hype and interest that people have in MMOs also brush shoulders with other PC games, because you do need something to play in the meantime.

It wasn’t a great, perfect year for MMOs, which is the funny thing. Aside from Tabula Rasa and Hellgate: London’s demise, Age of Conan underperformed, Pirates of the Burning Sea launched to become such a niche title that you never hear about it these days, Wrath of the Lich King got lots of applause yet people are burning through its content far quicker than ever before, and WAR had a strong yet shaky start and it combating some hostile voices out there as it builds its playerbase up. But no matter what, we have more choices for MMO gaming than ever before, and that is a terrific, wonderful thing.

I’m looking forward to 2009, but dreading it a bit as well. I’m already a bit wistful that I can’t play as many MMOs (or really, more than one) than I’d like, and there’s a lot out there I would play if I had the time or money: Guild Wars, Wizard 101, Eve Online to name a few. And City of Heroes, but I’ll be patient and wait for Champions Online. Arrgh! What a deliciously awful predicament to be in!

Happy Holidays!

I know it’s been a bit quiet here at Bio Break — that’s in part to the holiday season, and also in part to a lot of work on another one of my sites (Mutant Reviewers) which is making a transition to WordPress as well. I’m looking forward to jawing about all sorts of games in 2009 — so don’t delete me from your feed/bookmark/lifestyle just yet!

In other news… I just got Chrono Trigger for the DS for Christmas.

/happy sigh

10 Reasons I’m Looking Forward To Star Wars: The Old Republic

Lately Star Wars: The Old Republic has stomped all over the news cycle as “the” upcoming MMORPG to keep your eyes on, and not just because of the alleged RMT/microtransactions link. Here are 10 of my personal reasons why I can’t wait to get my hands on this title:

1. It’s Bioware — the same company that thrilled me with single-player RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate II and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I won’t say they’re perfect — Jade Empire was so-so, and for some reason I couldn’t really get into Mass Effect as much as I thought I would — but they’re the best storytellers in the biz, in my opinion.

2. We’ve known for years that Star Wars was possibly the best IP one could hope for in a MMORPG (loads of action, settings, combat), yet Star Wars Galaxies really dropped the ball with it. Here is something we haven’t ever seen yet: another developer picking up a MMO IP that’s been done, and (hopefully) doing it better.

3. Stylized graphics — As computer systems and graphic technology is advancing faster than developers can make games, creating a MMO with a substantially aging graphical look is a real problem. City of Heroes and World of Warcraft went a different route with more stylized graphics (vs. realistic), something Bioware is trying to emulate with their universe.

4. Huge emphasis on story and choices — I talked a bit about this over on WAAAGH!, but one of my greatest frustrations with MMOs is how very little the story tends to draw players in, especially compared to single-player RPGs. Cut scenes and spoken dialogue help, but SW:TOR’s big hook is that you’ll actually have to make many story choices over the course of your character’s career, choices you can’t reverse, and consequences you’ll have to live with. The devs discuss a lot on this first trailer.

5. Distance — yet similarities — to the Star Wars universe of the six movies. Let’s face it, those movies have been done to death in video games, and the limitations of the movie events are constraining on what stories can be told. The Old Republic setting, on the other hand, is thousands of years prior to the movie series events, which allowed Bioware to break free of those limitations, and yet still retain the familiar Star Wars settings and feel that we’re used to. The KOTOR universe is pretty well-known and beloved by gamers over the past few years, and fans had been clamoring for a new game in this setting.

6. More story content than all of Bioware’s previous games… combined. This is a big talking point for Bioware, and I don’t think they’re just blowing smoke here. They’ve stated that a team that includes 12 full-time writers have been working well over two years on the content, which just blows my mind.

7. Companion characters — Bioware’s gotten some flak for including these companion NPCs and stating that a large chunk of the content should be soloable, but people seem to be missing the point here. I don’t think Bioware’s including companions so players have a combat pet to help them form a miniparty, but to have a persistent NPC that serves as a connection to the game universe and as an ongoing story in and of itself. Bioware’s used companions in pretty much every RPG they’ve done, and they’ve become some of the most memorable characters in the genre (Go for the eyes, Boo!).

8. The Force user question will be dealt up front this time — Sony really screwed up with its implementation of Force users in SWG, a tacked-on system that felt like an afterthought, was nearly impossible to attain at first, and then became so simple that the movie universe they portrayed was absolutely plagued by Jedi and Sith. Bioware’s got to know that (1) they can’t NOT include Force users, and (2) they have to balance the game with those classes in mind to make other, non-Forcey classes viable and attractive for players. For the record, I have no interest in playing a Jedi or Sith — and the only part of KOTOR that upset me was that I was forced to do so.

9. I love scifi so much more than fantasy, but the genre’s been heavily weighted to the latter since its inception. Sure, we’ve seen scifi MMOs (SWG, AO, CoH, Eve Online), but so far scifi hasn’t had its ultra-popular champion to rival fantasy’s beastly MMO titles. Could SW:TOR be that game? Fingers crossed!

10. Dude, it’s STAR WARS. When I was a little kid, I vividly remember the day my aunt took me to see Return of the Jedi in theaters, and I lived and breathed Star Wars for the next few years like many kids in the 80’s did. Star Wars is such a crucial and popular part of our geek culture that the thought of being able to romp around in a proper Star Wars MMO is goosebump-inducing joy.

Bonus: If HK-47 or his relatives aren’t in the game, Bioware has failed. But I’ll bet the farm they will be, Meatbags!

Tower Defense

Serious gamers, aka the “Hardcore”, have displayed a growing trend to look down on people who play casual PC games, usually something from the Flash oeuvre. They sneer at the thought of being considered in the same category as these puddle-deep players, which is unfortunate, because it’s not only the past of PC gaming, but a large chunk of the future as well. While PC games offer unparalleled depth and graphics and controls, a lot of folks just haven’t kept up with the curve. They want something simple, something addictive, something that offers quick, gratifying fun. And I have no problem with that — you see, as much as I love my complex MMOs and RPGs, sometimes I just want to lean back in my chair and play a game solely with a mouse that exists solely in a browser.

I’m addicted to the Tower Defense subgenre, and my wife curses me for also getting her hooked on these games. There’s just something primally satisfying about laying out a good defense and watching little whatevers try to get past it. It’s part strategy and part show, and I’m always on the hunt for newer, better TD titles.

Some of my perennial favorites include:

  • Desktop Tower Defense — This title’s been the king of the mountain for a while now, and for good reason. You not only lay out a balanced defense against creeps with towers, but unlike many TD games, your towers *ARE* the maze. Creating a twisty, turny maze that keeps the creeps exposed to fire for as long as possible is the main challenge here.
  • Bloons Tower Defense 3 — The Bloons series mixes two awesome elements into the TD genre: monkeys and balloons (or “bloons”). Instead of creeps with health bars, you’re faced with a stream of balloons, most of which have other balloons nested inside (like Russian dolls). Let me tell you, popping balloons never, ever gets old, especially when you’re popping them dozens and dozens per second.
  • Gemcraft — Gemcraft is an interesting start-up on the genre, which incorporates multiple mazes, a RPG-like leveling system, and towers that you can equip with gems on the fly to change their abilities. The graphics aren’t the best, and some of the levels are devilishly hard, but it’s a great, solid game all around.
  • Vector TD 2 — As its name suggests, Vector TD’s look is in 2D line vectors, which have a colorful, unique look that’s hard to beat. The game is fast, furious and sometimes far too difficult, but I squeezed a few great drops of entertainment from it before I was through.
  • Canyon Defense — Out of all these titles, Canyon Defense is probably the slowest and most broken, but for some reason, I couldn’t stop playing it for a period. It tries to differentiate itself by requiring you to fulfill “tasks” to unlock more powerful buildings, which plays into the strategy more than you’d think. Good graphics, but as I said, somewhat unbalanced (if you start pumping out the money stations, you’ll have more cash than you could ever use).

Darkfall: Savior of the WORLD

I’m sorry, but I couldn’t stop chuckling — nay, braying like a donkey on nitrous oxide — after reading this post.

Ladies and gentlemen, Darkfall is not only important, it is VITAL. It is INNOVATION. It is the last bastion of original thought in the genre! It will rescue us from those crappy, easy-to-understand games like World of Warcraft and Warhammer, and give us such complexity that is rarely seen outside of a tic-tac-toe convention. Darkfall will rejuvenate the MMO genre! It will turn lead to gold! Balance the national budget! Make us all join hands and sing in happy unity!

It is, and I quote this wonderful essay, “a vessel of hope to try to stop the madness that has turned what was once the best genre in all of video gaming and reduced it to an experience that is akin to sitting on a ride in Disneyland.”

A vessel of hope! Really! Are we sure Darkfall didn’t win the presidential election?

/facepalm

Now, granted, I haven’t been following this title with any interest other than a passing familiarity with the name, because when you are able to sum it up as “free-for-all PVP in a fantasy setting”, it hardly merits an eyebrow lifting in this day and age. It’s been in development forever, which means the devs have been endlessly promoting it for that length of time. This breeds two audiences: most people who don’t care, and the select few who have been hanging on this title like the Second Coming for so long that they’ve got a bit batty.

I can appreciate that the author of this essay is excited. And a fan. And eager to taste something new and different in the MMO scene. But this article deserves to be used to make sick children in hospitals laugh because the guy goes to such extremes — such as declaring all successful MMOs pure crap, that only Darkfall shows any promise of innovation in the genre, and that we will be aligning ourselves with Team Evil if we don’t give this game our “best wishes”.

Newsflash: Darkfall is not a revolutionary innovator. For one thing, it’s Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG. And it has two elf races. How can you innovate if you’re still throwing those pointy-eared freaks into your game?

So it’s free-for-all PvP — so what? That’s not new, it’s just not been a mainstay of most MMOs for a while now, because it wasn’t too loved when it was in Ultima Online and other elderly titles. In fact, we’ve seen loads of PvP-focused MMOs this past year — WAR, Age of Conan, Fury.

So it’s ultra-super-duper hardcore — so what? You know what this rant reminds me of? Everyone who kept going on and on about how Vanguard was the return of the old school hardcore MMO and how “true gamers” would return to their roots in droves. And, crappy game aside, there’s been no evidence that the majority of gamers want to go *back* to times when MMOs were elitist and far too complicated and unwieldy and frustrating. Besides, how can you make an argument that going back to this style of gameplay is innovative?

If I can read down a feature list of a game and list at least one other MMORPG title that also claims to have that feature, then guess what? You’re not innovating squat here. You may be making a better version or implementation of that feature, but you aren’t pioneering anything.

Let’s face it: you don’t have to know a lot to know that Darkfall, even if it pulls off all of its promised features perfectly, will be a very niche game. “Very niche” is not going to be the powerful incentive to other MMO companies in taking risks that the author thinks. In fact, Eve Online’s done FFA PvP, classless character development, and massive server populations in ways that I think Darkfall’s devs only dream about at night.

But thanks for a laugh. I needed one today.

Is Richard Bartle the new Jack Thompson?

With good ol’ Jack Thompson disbarred and fading from the video game scene as an attack dog/controversy starter/general wild-eyed maniac, I’m sure not just a few sites and blogs have been thrashing about looking for a new punching bag for their wit and wisdom.

“Hm,” they think. “All we need is a fairly high-profile figure who is somehow connected with games, is very opinionated, gets agitated easily, and engages the mob on their level.”

To be fair, this could be quite a few people, but Richard Bartle’s stepped up to the plate this year to deliver this perfect storm of qualities, and writers left and right are barely containing their glee at attacking one of the founding fathers of the modern MMO scene.

A few months ago, I myself got into it when I read a quote of Bartle’s where he seemingly dismissed Warhammer because he’d already played World of Warcraft. It was really an aside post, something you write off the top of your head in the passion of the moment, so imagine my surprise as Bartle (who must monitor his name popping up on blogs) responded in force. Then, adding to my surprise, I saw that he’d commented on pretty much every blog or site that took him to task over this comment.

Now, the way the internet works is that one person cannot fight the mob, and should rise above that level of discourse when the trolls get their blood up. It’s not fair, but usually the fight is not worth the additional trouble you’d bring down on your head. Yet Bartle kept on going after these people, defending himself with tenuous logic and walls of text, and eventually it fizzled out as the news cycle went elsewhere.

Recently, we’ve been treated to another Bartle story that Just Won’t Die, in which he made a comment on his blog about the use of torture in a World of Warcraft quest — the player is instructed to torture a NPC multiple times until the NPC “confesses”. Bartle was taken aback and said so, but perhaps used a few too many words to keep it above controversy. Some people agreed with him, but some went after him the way lions stalk a wounded zebra.

To be honest, I kind of see his point. I know, I know, it’s “just a game”, but to ask a player to virtually torture someone is not something we see too often, particularly in Blizzard’s Disneyland-ish title.

The fun of all this is that Bartle took offense to everyone commenting on his comments, so he commented back and in greater force. That prompted the mob to comment in return, and we’ve been going back and forth and back and forth on this for days now. It’s weird, sickening, funny and eye-rolling.

If it’s his opinion, then fine — it’s his. I think he gets a little too into whatever he’s saying and he doesn’t always make the best analogies, but he’s not attacking your first-born kid or anything. I don’t understand quite why people are so insanely riled up against him, other than he just won’t let it go and neither will they:

It’s kind of a shame because this topic could have led to some real engrossing discussion about whether torture is an appropriate in-game activity for MMOs — but neither Bartle nor most of these blogs will let it be anything but about ego, cheap shots and “your mama!” attitudes. I think people are eager to rip into him not so much because of what he said but because of who he is and his status in the MMO community. I think he gets a little too worked up when other people disagree with him. Six of one, half-dozen of another.