Exiting the Tomodachi Life

Though I’m an online creature, I don’t think that the online version of me is radically different than the meatspace version of me that occupies the physical world. The same brain directs both versions of me, even though the brain has to adjust to how each version of me interacts with and receives feedback from its respective world. The same soul is reflected in how the digital and physical me interacts with the people who inhabit each world.

Since I never made a distinction between the digital and the physical me, I never saw the point of playing social simulations like The Sims, Animal Crossing, or Harvest Moon. Furthermore, the physical act of playing social simulations like The Sims or Animal Crossing seemed particularly tedious; there didn’t seem to be the type of feedback that more active games like character action-adventure games or sports simulation games or first person shooters can provide.

So, I was surprised at my own reaction to what I saw of Tomodachi Life, specifically when the Giant Bomb crew played it on an episode of their weekly show, Unprofessional Fridays. The game’s quirkiness appealed to me, and for a while, it kept me glued to the game on my commute to work every morning. One morning, I found that Jesus of Nazareth, whom I had invited to live on island, named Tummy Isle Island, had been arrested for adding hot mustard to foods around the island. No explanation was given for why Jesus had made this his mission, and the other residents of Tummy Isle Island had muted reactions to this news. Another morning, Jesus attempted to break the world record of facial distortion by stretching his face but failed by an inch. Did Jesus go on his hot mustard mission because he failed to break this world record, or was it because I fed him something that he didn’t like the day before? Another morning, one resident dreamed an ill-fated romance between a brownie and a stack of pancakes. On a different morning, another resident dreamed that he was a bobblehead on a dashboard of a car that was racing through a dark forest. One night, my own avatar dreamed that he was a snail crawling along a blank white floor. These snippets sound like gibberish when I recount them to anyone else.

Though quirky and kooky stuff have a fairly limited lifespan (I’ve seen the dashboard bobblehead dream multiple times from different residents, so it seems like something with which the game likes to populate its characters’ dreams), that wasn’t what ultimately caused me to  finally put Tomodachi Life aside. Instead, it’s something that should seem impossible for a game that’s as theoretically personalized as Tomodachi Life: the feeling of homogeneity.

For a while, my game felt personalized enough that I wasn’t left wondering about the game’s nuts and bolts. The goal is to keep the avatars I’ve populated Tummy Isle Island with as happy as possible by meeting their essential needs (food, clothes, shelter, companionship). I populated my world with a mix of celebrities (Shaq, the Giant Bomb crew), my family members (my wife, son, brother, and sister-in-law), my friends, and fictional characters (Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Rei Ayanami, Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Geordi LaForge, Yotsuba&!‘s Yotsuba Koiwai, and Left4Dead‘s Zoey and Louis). Though I inserted my wife and me into the game, but there’s no obvious guarantee that they would become sweethearts and eventually husband and wife. (Except, if you think about the game’s logic, there is, but we’ll explore that later.) As in real life, my wife’s avatar proposed to me, and I felt awful when I botched my wife’s avatar’s proposal to my avatar by tapping the screen at the wrong time.

As time passes and I continue to solve the avatars’ problems, the avatars’ levels rise. I think my avatar is at level 14; Shaq’s probably at level 13. The game’s simulacrum breaks not from the fact that the avatars’ measure their growth in levels, but from the homogeneity that this mechanic forces upon the avatar. At each level, the player is forced to give the character a gift from a limited selection, a catchphrase for when the character is angry, happy, or sad, an apartment design again from a limited selection, a song from a limited selection of styles, or some pocket money from the player’s own in-game funds. In the physical world, I can’t rap or sing opera. But, my avatar in Tomodachi Life does because I simply ran out of things I could give him as he gained levels. The player is limited in the number and type of gifts we can give the avatars; almost all of the avatars, including Jesus of Nazareth, on Tummy Isle Island have cell phones I had to give them something, and Jesus didn’t seem like the type to have a punching bag. Similarly, my wife and I both rap, sing opera, have cell phones, and have the same apartment designs. The distinctions between characters gets filed down by the limited variety of things we can do when the characters level up. In order to keep the avatars unique, I can either give them pocket change that they won’t use from a pool I need to use to buy things to keep the avatars happy or homogenize them.

Once the game’s own obstacle to avatar growth became clear, I was given the mental space to wonder how and why my avatars formed their connections. It was fairly obvious why my wife’s avatar formed a relationship with my own avatar: we were the only avatars on Tummy Isle Island for a while. Oddly enough, neither avatar ever formed a connection with my son’s avatar, even though I had designated in the Mii Creator that he was our son. This left me in a weird position of wondering what happens when our avatars have a baby in Tomodachi Life when our actual kid’s avatar is already in the game and seemingly estranged from our avatars. And this doubt led me to where social simulation games die: GameFAQs.

The moment I’m tempted to open a guide to understand the game’s nuts and bolts, the game’s illusions are dispelled. And because the mini-games in Tomodachi Life are shallow, the mechanics of clothing and feeding the avatars shallow, and the lifespan of quirkiness fairly limited, I took the cartridge out of the 3DS XL that I ostensibly bought so I could play Tomodachi Life with a small sense of relief.


Fists of Forty (Round 3): Let the Beatdowns Begin

First off, let me just say that Patrick Miller’s fighting game primer is fantastic. I have already gained a deeper appreciation for fighting games, whether I end up getting decent at them or not. One of the first things he talks about in the book is that this eight second video of Ryu vs. Ryu pretty much contains everything you need to know about fighting games–and it actually does.

After watching that video quite a few times and reading through the first section of the book, I decided to fire up Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and get a baseline. As the book suggested, I went into training mode as Ryu against Ryu, to practice doing his basic moves before I moved on.

And when the other Ryu was just a training dummy offering no resistance whatsoever, I felt pretty good about executing moves. I was hitting my fireballs (Hadokens) 70% of the time, and my Dragon Punches (Shoryukens) about half the time. I was mixing up strikes and throws, and after a little while felt pretty comfortable with Ryu’s basic moves.

And then I let the training dummy fight back.

As soon as I let the other Ryu loose, I was on my heels. From the start, he kept me on the defensive by peppering me with fireballs. Whenever I tried to come out of the corner by jumping a fireball, he’d kick me in mid-air or Dragon Punch me, and if I managed to get close enough, he’d throw me. But the most disorienting aspect of the beatdowns was how fast the moves were coming. Eventually, I’d start getting a few moves in here or there, but I was not executing well due to the constant barrage, so I would constantly leave myself open to getting punished.

Tired of getting destroyed by my mirror image, I decided to hop into Arcade Mode to finish out my training session. I put it on medium difficulty and was pitted against Guile, who promptly showed my why I was not ready for medium difficulty yet.

Like Ryu’s fireballs, Guile used his Sonic Boom to keep me on my heels and then close the distance. Whenever he got close, it was throw time. His Dragon Suplex (the one where he beds over backwards and drives you into the ground) was his throw of choice, and I am still having nightmares of him landing that move over and over again.

For my part, I did start to make some progress against Guile, blocking those early barrages of Sonic Booms and then finding my windows to strike. But once again, lack of execution just meant I was getting punished for missing throws, Dragon Punches and fireballs.

It kind of sounds like I’m not making progress, but I know that I am. Even in the short time I’ve been putting the effort in, I am already seeing the game differently. I’ve progressed past button mashing and I’m starting to see the strategy behind the game. But my lack of execution in versus situations means I have a lot more practicing to do.

Next time, I face off against Dee Jay, Ken and Chun Li.


My Yearly Pilgrimage to the Boardwalk Arcade in Wells, Maine

It is a yearly tradition that has been going on since I started playing video games. Each year my family travels three hours north to Wells, Maine for a week at the beach, and more importantly–the arcades.

Arcades are few and far between in my general area nowadays, but up in Wells there are two in relatively short distance from one another. One right at the top of Wells Beach, and another less than twenty minutes away in York.

Over the past several years, the York arcade has been the only one of the two to really feature old school arcade games, but many of its machines were breaking down, shoved off into the back of the arcade.

So I was very pleasantly surprised this year when I took my kids to the Boardwalk Arcade in Wells. Not only had most of the machines in the arcade been updated, but there were some classics that were brought in as well.

There were still a good amount of ticket-based games there, but at least things like the basketball shooting game was Pac-Man themed, and Monopoly had replaced Deal or No Deal as the first ticket-based game you see when you walk in. Their driving games had been updated, and my son and I played a really fun Batman game that featured every incarnation of the Batmobile in racing/car combat gameplay.

Of course there was Skee-Ball, air hockey, pinball and other arcade standards, but I was really happy to see an original Mario Bros. Machine, as well as a Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga machine.

All in all, the Boardwalk Arcade in Wells now has a much more wall-rounded library of games, and feel more like a traditional arcade. I;m not sure if I’ll get to the one in York this year, but I can only hope they’ve done some repair and upgrade work as well. For my family, the arcades as a central part of our yearly vacation in Maine, and I hope that stays the case for many years to come.

On a related note, I killed at Skee-Ball, and with over 200 tickets was able to help my son get a ridiculously over-priced foam football. We’ve played catch on the beach every day so far.


Fists of Forty (Round 2): Pre-Fight Preparations

My quest to become a better fighting game player began with research. Because I knew that if I wanted to get serious about learning fighting games, it would need to be on a stick, not a gamepad. Turns out those things are pretty expensive. For example, the only sticks out right now for XBox One are about $200, and Killer Instinct is really the only game I’d be putting time into on that console. On the PS4 side, a new stick is coming soon that will be able to toggle between the PS3 and the PS4, but that is also about $200.

So, I made the decision to focus on last gen consoles as far as training, with the idea being I would make a bigger investment on sticks for current gen if I actually am progressing.

But even sticks on last gen consoles are super pricey. So on the way home from work one day this week, I stopped by a local mom and pop game shop, where I was able to grab a very nice used stick on the cheap.

I knew that I had access to Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition on PS3, as it had become free for PS Plus subscribers a while back. And my original intention was to start with that game.

But, after doing a little research on fighting games for beginners, I came across a wonderful guide over on–From Masher to Master: The Educated Video Game Enthusiast’s Fighting Game Primer. Written by Patrick Miller, this is a free ebook aimed at people just like me–gamers who want to explore and get better at fighting games. In the book, Patrick suggests starting with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix as your game to learn on. It was only a $10 download on PSN, so I bought it.

So, I had myself a good stick to learn on, a guide to walk me through the basics, and the game I was going to train with. I was ready to learn.

Next time I’ll write about my first training session.


Fists of Forty or: Can a 40-Year-Old Gamer Learn to Play Fighting Games? (Round 1)

A weird thing happened to me last week. First, I turned forty years old. That wasn’t really the weird part. I mean, I’m not psyched about being forty, but it happens.

Anyway, I found myself watching the Evolution Championship Series (EVO) 2014 streams on Twitch. And like just about everyone else who watches high-level fighting game play but is terrible at fighting games themselves, I lamented the fact that I never stuck with fighting games long enough to get any good at them.

And since I’d been looking for some kind of midlife crisis thing to focus on, I thought “Hey, I should really give this fighting game thing a go.” And by giving it a go I mean really put some time into developing the skills to be at least be decent enough to hold my own with random opponents online, or when I go to comics and gaming conventions and people are playing some of the more popular games.

And so, I decided I was actually going to do this. I was going to make a serious effort to not suck at fighting games. I mean, as far as midlife crises go, I could be trying to recapture my youth in many worse ways, right?

Now, it’s not like I’ve never played a fighting game before. I grew up in arcades (I’m 40, in case I didn’t mention that), so arcade fighters were certainly something I pumped plenty of quarters into. But I never spent enough time with them to really get any good.

I was a freshman in college back in 1992, right after Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was released for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Two twin brothers that lived down the hall from me in the dorm had that game running pretty much 24-7. I didn’t get a ton of time with it, as I would get beat pretty regularly, but I eventually was pretty decent with Dhalsim.

Once NHLPA Hockey ‘93 came out though, I moved on from Street Fighter II and never looked back. In 1993, I grabbed Mortal Kombat for the SEGA Genesis on “Mortal Monday,” and my roommates and I played that for the better part of that school year. I was a Johnny Cage guy, and I got good enough to beat my friends on a fairly regular basis.

My longest and final foray into fighting games was the first PlayStation game I bought when I got the console in 1996–Tekken 2. If I remember correctly, there had been a demo of the game on the pack-in disc that came with the console. Either that, or I first played it in a store demo. In any case, that game completely blew me away.

In addition to being a great fighting game, the fact that each character in Tekken 2 had their own cutscene ending gave me a reason to play though with each one. The two characters I settled on for the long haul were Lei Wulong (I was a huge Jackie Chan fan) and Armor King (I was also a huge wrestling fan). I played Tekken 2 regularly for a couple of years, and I could hold my own against pretty much all of my gaming friends at the time. The battles we would have are some of my favorite gaming memories to this day.

But that’s pretty much it. Once I moved in with my wife-to-be (who is not a gamer, except for an addiction to Pandemonium in the early PS One days), I no longer had the couch co-op situation going on, and my time with fighting games was done. I’ve certainly tried to get back into them over the years, whether it be the various Street Fighter entries, Marvel vs. Capcom, and other Tekken installments. But even with ability to play online, I never stuck with any of them.

And so here we are. My goal is simple–for the next year, I will dedicate the majority of my precious gaming time to becoming a competent fighting gamer. I will blog about it here on Co-Op Critics, and I will probably do a few podcasts along the way as well.

Anyone reading this post is welcome to join me, midlife crisis or not.

In my next post, I’ll talk about doing some research, getting the proper equipment, and what game my training will begin with.

Trying Out PS4 Twitch Broadcasting With Outlast

After doing a couple of Twitch broadcasts with XBox One, I wanted to give the PS4’s version a try. So, I downloaded Outlast and played through the opening chapter. While getting the broadcast up and running was easy, I couldn’t figure out how to get the chat bar to disappear so the broadcast could be recorded in full-screen.

I’ll keep playing around with it, but you can check out the first part of my outlast playthrough below. I’ll say this about Outlast–that game is super creepy if you play late at night with the lights out.


SQUIDS: Odyssey Makes a Great Transition from Mobile to Console

Way back in 2011, I reviewed an iOS game called SQUIDS, a turn-based RPG that combined solid mechanics, bite-sized missions and an undersea aesthetic designed to appeal to gamers of all ages. SQUIDS was a micro transaction supported game that struck a nice balance with its currency system, so you could actually progress without having to spend additional money if you didn’t want to. The Game Bakers also released a sequel called SQUIDS: Wild West, which was also well received.

Fast forward to 2014, and developer The Game Bakers has brought SQUIDS to Nintendo’s 3DS and WiiU platforms. This new iteration is called SQUIDS: Odyssey, and it brings the first two games together and some additional content as well. There are no microtransactions this time around–the game is a $14.99 digital download from the eShop. I spent a good amount of time with the WiiU version this past weekend, and I’m really impressed with how well the game has been adapted for Nintendo’s console.

SQUIDS: Odyssey retains the same story and core gameplay from the original games. Players control a group of squids who are thrust into the role of both protectors and recruiters when their underwater home is threatened by a mysterious Black Ooze that corrupts undersea creatures, turning them evil. Players control a party of squids that consist of different classes–Scouts (speedy rogue), Shooters (ranged combat), Troopers (tanks) and Healers. As you unlock more characters in the game, you can swap them in and out of your party, and customize that party for each type of level you’re facing. In addition to customizing your party, you can level up your characters, as well as find and purchase gear that gives characters bonuses to certain stats.

Each bite-sized level features enemies that must be defeated and hazards that must be navigated. So in addition to making sure you have the right members in your party, you also have to make sure you’re using them strategically. You move the squids around each level by pulling back their legs and aiming them in a certain direction. There are obstacles littering each level, and some levels have area that you can actually fall off. So each turn is spent positioning your characters to not only defeat enemies, but support one another and navigate the level effectively.

What’s impressive to me about SQUIDS is that all of the systems in the game are well balanced and simple to understand. None of the systems I mentioned above ever feels overwhelming, and each time I failed to complete a level, I knew exactly what I did wrong. More impressively, the game has transitioned well from a microtransaction-based model to one in which all of the currency is unlocked through playing. Gear and upgrades are reasonable priced, and because you can go back and play any level you’ve beaten, you can always grind for more loot and currency before taking on more challenging levels.

On the WiiU front, The Game Bakers have flawlessly adapted SQUIDS for the console. You can play with either button-based controls or touch controls on the GamePad, and at any time, you can switch the TV mode off and just play entirely on the GamePad. This game actually feels like it was made for the WiiU, and it uses the GamePad better than most of the games I’ve played on the console.

All in all, SQUIDS: Odyssey is a great adaptation of the series that is perfectly at home on the WiiU. It’s a game you can play with your kids, or enjoy as an adult, and it’s got plenty of content for the $15 asking price. Definitely worth checking out. And if you need any hints or tips as you play through, the devs have put a complete strategy guide up on The Game Bakers website. You can check it out here.


First Impressions– Transformers: Rise of the Dark Spark

The last Transformers game that I spent a good amount of time with was 2010’s Transformers: War for Cybertron. I had a lot of fun with it, and especially enjoyed the campaign co-op. High Moon Studios’ received solid reviews on two of their three Transformers games, so there were certainly some questions about how developer Edge of Reality would handle the next entry in the franchise, Rise of the Dark Spark.

After spending a few hours with the game, this new installment feels similar to War for Cybertron, and the little I played of its two sequels. In short, it’s a fun third-person action game that pretty much nails the whole transforming part. One click of a button switches from vehicle to robot mode, and the combat controls are pretty easy to pick up as well.

I like the loadout mechanics of the game so far. You unlock new weapons and upgrades as you go along, which lends a measure of customization to the game. And because the main storyline switches back and forth between Autobots and Decepticons, you get to play with a variety of characters.

In the video of an early Decepticon mission below, you’ll see me alternating between looking like I know what I’m doing and looking like I’m playing with my eyes closed. Enjoy.

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E3 2014: What I’m Most Excited About (Part 3)–Splatoon

There was a lot of what Nintendo showed this year at E3 that got me excited, but Splatoon is the game that stands out the most. Not only is Splatoon a new IP, but it’s a multiplayer shooter that is appropriate for all ages and features some very clever new mechanics.

I chalk my excitement for Splatoon up to how well Nintendo showcased the game at E3 this year. They gave the game enough time in the spotlight for people to really understand what its about.

Splatoon at first glance is a very “kiddy” game with cute aesthetics and seemingly simplified gameplay. But as soon as you start to dig a little deeper, you see that the game is a brilliant twist on third-person shooter games. You win matches by covering a greater portion of the map with your team’s colored ink. So the emphasis is on controlling geography as opposed to “killing” opponents. And because the characters are squid-like humanoids, their ability to swim in the ink that covers the map adds a great twist to ammo refilling and navigation. You’re faster when you’re swimming, and swimming provides cover. You can cover walls with ink to allow you to climb up them and reach higher vantage points. You can sneak up on enemies and pop out just long enough to take them down. It really adds a more dynamic layer to the basic third-person shooter template.

I’ve said before that I really enjoyed Nintendo’s approach to E3 this year, and putting the developers up front to talk about the games they’re making was a great move. Splatoon looks like a ton of fun, and I can’t wait to play it with my kids.

Why the DESTINY “alpha” might be my Game of the Year (so far)

The short version of my feelings on the upcoming Bungie game DESTINY after spending a weekend playing the “alpha” on PS4: it surpassed my expectations in almost every way.

The long version requires some preliminary explanation. First of all, let’s talk about MMO’s, because while Bungie may dance around the term all they want, DESTINY fits most of the criteria for an MMO. One could probably quibble with how “massive” the player count truly is, so perhaps we can properly call it a Moderately Multiplayer Online game? At any rate, for years I’ve been intrigued by the gameplay and social elements of MMO’s but never spent much time with them because I’ve never really been a PC gamer (blame my lifelong allegiance to the Mac, I suppose) and consequently don’t truly feel comfortable with mouse and keyboard controls for games. Even when I’ve tried an MMO on a console, like DCUO, it’s been a lackluster experience primarily because the gamepad controls feel awkward and unsatisfying.

So an MMO whose action is the very familiar “left trigger, then right trigger” mechanic I’ve learned through years of console shooters seems tailor-made for me. That brings us to the second element that appealed to me: loot. Like most gamers, I cannot deny being ready to hit that lever for my pellet of food when it comes to well-designed loot systems. A great deal of my enjoyment of both BORDERLANDS and DIABLO is due to the cycle of equip-kill-drop-evaluate-equip they employ, especially when done in an attractive and compelling art style.

The third aspect of DESTINY that hooked me? Grouping for co-operative play requires only 3 people. Now, I recognize that this fact actually is a negative for some, but as a 41-year old dadgamer who’s watched his circle of gaming friends dwindle over the years as life has gotten in the way, I’m thrilled to know that if I can just find 2 other people I can meet the game’s challenges on equal terms. And while there is a competitive mode available in DESTINY with a more robust 6v6 population, it’s the co-operative play that holds the most allure for me.

Finally, and most importantly: I’m a huge sci-fi nerd. If nothing else, Bungie has a proven track record of creating a rich and deep science fiction setting for its games. Heck, the mythology and universe of the HALO games kept me much more invested in that franchise than the gameplay ever did. So the story elements in DESTINY that have been released so far, the design of the characters, weapons, & vehicles, and the environments I’ve seen and those I’ve only glimpsed in trailers all line up perfectly with my taste and interest.

Now, all of those factors raised my expectations (and, to be honest, probably had me ready to overlook plenty of flaws) before I started playing. So when the alpha kicked off, I created a Hunter class character, jumped in, and… LOVED the gameplay. The shooting felt great. The melee attacks were SO satisfying. My character moved well, and hopping on a hover bike to get around the outdoor environment was actually fun. Early enemies were dispatched easily enough to build my confidence, and then boss fights were challenging enough to make me appreciate their defeat. I was, frankly, thrilled to find exactly what I was looking for in DESTINY. I eagerly await the beta in July, and the full release of the game in September. I no longer am disappointed by the games that have moved into 2015, because my gaming time in the last 5 months of 2014 is spoken for.

I realize I haven’t even talked about how gorgeous it is, or how good it sounds, or the sheer nerd glee I felt when Lance Reddick’s voice kicked in at one point. (I even liked Peter Dinklage’s work as your AI companion, although I can certainly see why some folks feel he’s been a bit too flat.) Take a look at a trailer for the game. Look at some screenshots. And then give me a shout in September, and we’ll take on the universe together.