Video Games New York–Love at First Sight

When I was in NY for New York Comic Con this past October, I visited an amazing game store that I’ve been meaning to post about for some time now. Video Games New York is a store in the East Village that is exactly the type of place that every gamer wishes they had in their own neighborhood.

From the Mario statue out front, to the shelves full of cartridges, to the console-filled display cabinets, Video Games New York feels like a shop and a museum at the same time. Not only do they have every console known to man, but they have tons of imports, rare collectibles, old store displays, standups and everything else you could imagine.

Check out the pics below, and if you’re ever in the East Village, you have to stop by Video Games New York.


Gaming Stories: Awesome Games Done Quick 2013

I can’t remember the last time I turned on my Xbox 360 to play video games. The backlog remains, but I haven’t made any attempts in months to clear it. Most of my play takes place on my iPad these days, and the actual experience of gaming feels very disposable these days. More than anything else, though, I seem to be spending a lot of time watching other people play. Whether it’s archived Let’s Play videos, Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling stream, or various videos on GiantBomb, my gaming experience these days seems to be composed of vicarious thrills lately.

For me, the original and purest source of vicarious gaming thrills is still the Speed Demos Archive, the repository of speedrun videos since 2004. In my previous post about the New Game Masters, I stated that the participants in the Penny Arcade Expo’s Omegathon and players like Ray “Stallion83” Cox carry the spirit of masterful play, adaptability, and comfort with all kinds of games and systems that players on Video Power and in the Nintendo World Championship Series had, but I neglected to talk about speedrunners who conquer games as quickly as possible. Their speedruns show old games like Jackal and Metroid in new ways that I would not have considered. Without speedrunners, I wouldn’t have thought about sequence-breaking in games like Super Metroid, where Power Bombs could be collected before the Grapple Beam, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, where items from all temples can be collected before finishing the first temple.

Speedrunners are perfectionists, players who patiently explore every facet of the games that they play to discover any secret that might lower their playtimes by seconds. In my experience, this can be done either through relentless experimentation achieved through playing the same game over and over or by browsing into the game’s actual code. They approach games like they’re puzzles waiting to be deconstructed, and like the players who post Let’s Play videos, they speedrun through games because they love them.

Speedrunning records confuse my eyes every time I read them, even though I’ve watched enough speedrunning videos at this point that I could understand on a basic level how they can be done. As with many other things in life, context is everything. For example, I have the achievement for completing the XBLA version of Contra in under 12 minutes. I played through the game often enough to memorize enemy placements and platform patterns. I knew when I could pick up the Spread Gun power-up and which enemies had to be fought and which could be avoided. So when I watched David Heidman, Jr.’s run of the NES version of Contra in 10 minutes and 11 seconds, I can understand on a fundamental level how he did it, which adds to my admiration of his skill and respect for his accomplishment.

From January 6 to January 12, the speedrunning community will be participating in Awesome Games Done Quick 2013, Speed Demos Archive’s charity marathon to raise funds for the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Certain scheduled speedruns, such as Aftermath’s attempt to complete Darksiders in 1 hour and 50 minutes and TheEnglishMan’s attempt to complete God of War 2 in 1 hour and 40 minutes, stand out because I devoted dozens of hours to each game, and the idea of beating either game so quickly is astounding. Other scheduled speedruns, such as Mike Uyama’s attempt to complete Earnest Evans in 20 minutes, intrigue me because I haven’t played those games, and I’m willing to dedicate some time to watch others navigate through them masterfully.

So, please visit Speed Demos Archive’s site for Awesome Games Done Quick 2013, join me and watch some of the new game masters apply their craft, and donate to the Prevent Cancer Foundation.


Gaming Stories: Video Game Championship Wrestling Revisited

Little Fraud, the Corporate Champion, until he wasn’t.
A lot can happen in a month, and a lot has indeed happened in the world of Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling. Championships have changed hands, lives have been altered, surprising alliances have formed, rings have been destroyed, and, according to the chat, Half-Life 3 has been delayed again because this happened:

I still can’t believe Nappa hit Gabe Newell with a supersuplex and collapse the ring to win the match via TKO.

When we last checked Video Game Championship Wrestling, Nappa and Zangief were engaged in a violent feud that involved backstage fights, Link had just debuted but lost, which earned him the nickname “The Jobber of Time,” Adam Jensen had stopped Ganondorf from beating on Ezio with a steel chair, and Little Mac had just become the viewers’ most hated villain because he was perceived to have screwed Zangief, who had won an opportunity to challenge for Video Game Championship Wrestling’s Hardcore Internet All-Star Championship.

Since then, the Hardcore Internet All-Star Championship has changed hands from Ganondorf to Bowser to Adam Jensen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution fame to Kratos to Little Mac to Proto Man to Donkey Kong, who is the current champion. Ganondorf’s loss to Bowser was a particularly memorable loss: it was a rematch between Ganondorf and Bowser, and it took place in an Inferno Iron Man Match, which meant that the two characters were in a ring surrounded by fire, and the character that scored the most pinfalls or submission victories in 30 minutes would win the match. Bowser won the match 32 pinfalls to Ganondorf’s 5.

The Dark Lord fell in dramatic fashion.

Meanwhile, the tag team championship has changed hands from the Team Fortress duo of Scout and Pyro to the team of GameCenter FU, composed of the Angry Video Games Nerd and Gamecenter CX’s Shinya Arino, to The Practice, made of Dr. Wily and Dr. Eggman. Little Mac and Zangief have resolved their feud, though Little Mac was recently run over by a mysterious black sedan, as these things go in professional wrestling.

The stream remains an arresting viewing experience, even though each show takes about 3-4 hours and they’ve occurred a little more frequently than I would like. Since November 26, Bazza87 has held a show on November 27, November 28, December 5, December 9, December 12, December 14, and December 19 and a special prototype show featuring female video game characters on December 15. The shows have all been entertaining, but it’s a significant time investment, and the pace could lead to burnout on both the presenter’s and the viewers’ sides. Some of the characters seem a little stale, but Bazza87 has tried to remedy this by holding elimination matches where the loser is erased from the roster. So far, Earthbound‘s Ness and President Obama have been eliminated.

The entertainment still comes from how nonsensical even the experience of describing what takes place during these shows can be. In the last paragraph alone, I mentioned that a character from a cult favorite NES roleplaying game and the current President of the United States have been eliminated from a made-up Internet-only fan-run professional wrestling league. The levels of abstraction from reality that exist in Video Game Championship Wrestling remain the key to why this works as well as it does.

The other part of the equation comes from the spontaneity that fuels the chat during the shows and how Bazza87 has reacted to the unexpected. Indeed, some of the best moments of watching Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling has come from dealing with WWE ’13‘s various bugs and glitches. The aforementioned epic Inferno Iron Man match between Ganondorf and Bowser showed that Yukes’s AI-controlled characters have trouble with specialty matches or matches with unusual stipulations. In that match, Ganondorf insisted on trying to force Bowser to submit to painful holds, but he refused to score pinalls on Bowser. On the other hand, Bowser had no such difficulties.

Also, the feud between Little Mac and Zangief began when Zangief won his shot at the championship in a match that lasted mere seconds because the game’s AI couldn’t coordinate six characters in a Money in the Bank Match, which requires wrestlers to climb ladders to retrieve a briefcase suspended above the ring. Because the match was so brief, Bazza87 determined that the match was glitched and held a rematch later in the show, which resulted in Little Mac winning the championship shot. Bazza87 then declared that Little Mac’s victory was the official result of the match, which led the chat to declare that he was “Baz McMahon,” styling him after Vince McMahon, who would involve himself in WWE’s storylines in overt and covert ways. Bazza87 would take to this role with relish, going so far as to control Vince McMahon as the referee in a match between Little Mac and Zangief.

A third example stands out. During a tag team match between the team of Dr. Eggman, Wesker, and Vegeta and the team of Duke Nukem, Donkey Kong, and Simon Belmont, Dr. Eggman glitched and stumbled around the ring while his teammates were beaten by their opponents. It seemed like Dr. Eggman’s glitch would cost his team the match, but Wesker and Vegeta were able to eliminate Simon Belmont and Donkey Kong, which forced Duke Nukem to fight all three villains alone. To everyone’s surprise, Duke Nukem was indeed able to pin Dr. Eggman, Wesker, and Vegeta, and the chat quipped that Duke Nukem’s performance in the match almost made up for Duke Nukem Forever.

Going forward, Bazza87 faces the challenge of continuing to deal with his league’s unpredictability. The recent championship churn demonstrates how difficult it can be to create compelling professional wrestling storylines when the organizer lacks the ability to directly control the results of matches. If we take our knowledge of how the Legend of Zelda games end, I think that Bazza87 introduced Link to Video Game Championship Wrestling to eventually dethrone Ganondorf, who at the time seemed invincible because he had beaten Dr. Eggman, the Angry Video Game Nerd, Scorpion, Little Mac, Bowser, and Ezio during his reign. But Link lost to Wario in his debut match, while Ganondorf lost his title to Bowser, so that storyline had to be scrapped. By wrestling logic, Zangief should have had an opportunity to challenge and possibly dethrone Little Mac after Little Mac won the championship, but Little Mac lost in his first title defense to Proto Man. Of course, Proto Man did survive this to win his shot at the championship:

Dr. Light builds them strong.

Bazza87 also needs to contend with the lack of continuity in WWE ’13‘s tournaments. Wrestlers cannot accumulate injuries in tournaments, so they cannot reflect accurately the results of earlier matches during a tournament. For example, Proto Man did not exhibit any damage from falling off the top of the cage during his match with Gabe Newell or in the other matches during that tournament.

In a way, Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling stream is the best stress test that Yukes and THQ can have to see how WWE ’14 could improve over WWE ’13. The popularity of Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling stream, which now has increased from 150,410 viewers as of November 26 to 343,759 viewers as of December 20, demonstrates that Yukes should consider enhancing the game’s build-a-storyline and streaming capabilities. The stream also highlights areas where Yukes could and should improve the game’s AI, such as the bug where wrestlers get stuck in endless cycles of sending each other to the ropes with Irish whips or cycles of reversing each other’s pins after the 1 count. Indeed, when the hashtag “#THQuality” is popularized because of all the varied ways WWE ’13 breaks under the strain of frequent AI matches, as shown in Bazza87’s Video Game Championship Wrestling stream, I can only hope that Yukes and THQ are paying attention.


Gaming Stories: The House of the Dead 2

What do you when your high school prom is over and you don’t want to go home yet? I’m wearing a tuxedo for the first time in my life (and looking pretty sharp, if I may say so myself), while my date is wearing a lovely blue dress. We’re in Times Square, the center of New York City, and all options (except bars, which required ID that we didn’t have and couldn’t show that we were of drinking age even if we did) lay before us. We could go to her favorite Greek coffee and pastry shop for some after-prom treats, but that’s near her house, and it would effectively signal the end of the evening. We got out late enough that we missed the last showings at the cinemas in Times Square, and who wants to watch a movie while wearing a tuxedo and a lovely formal blue dress anyway?

I did the only reasonable thing a teenager in Times Square could do: I took her to an arcade so we could play some video games.

I’m trying to remember what my rationale at the time must have been. I probably read an article in Maxim or Stuff or some other guy-oriented magazine or Web column that a great date should involve action. We had dinner and dancing at the prom, and since the bowling alley was several blocks away in the Port Authority bus terminal (and again, I wouldn’t go to the Port Authority bus terminal while dressed in a tuxedo) (and also, I’m not even sure that the bowling alley in the Port Authority bus terminal had been built by this time), that was not an option. So, we walked to the arcade.

While we definitely got some strange looks from the bouncer (which is a bad sign, if you think about it) at the arcade, we didn’t care because we were in our own little world that evening. I hadn’t really planned this far out, so I was left trying to figure out what game I could play with my date. Obviously, it would have to be cooperative; I wasn’t a huge fan of fighting games, and asking my date to play me in NBA Jam: Tournament Edition didn’t seem fair since it would be the first time she’s ever played it. I couldn’t find a cooperative side-scrolling game like The Simpsons Arcade Game, and I was burning precious goodwill with even proposing to go to the arcade, so I couldn’t dilly-dally while we were there. Then I saw the answer.

It seemed like the perfect option. It was moderately scary, so it would keep our adrenaline going. At $0.5 per credit, it wasn’t cheap to play, but it wasn’t disastrously expensive to a teenager like some of the other games were. And it was simple to explain: point the gun at the screen and pull the trigger to kill things.

I bought a few dollars worth of credits and we started the game. We cracked up when we had to defend ourselves against the dreaded green hopping frogs and teased each other when we accidentally shot the victims that we were trying to save. We got stuck at first stage boss like most people because hitting that flying goblin when it’s zooming around the stage is more difficult than most people would think. And then we were out of credits, and neither of us wanted to play any more. The actual act of playing didn’t last for more than 5 minutes, but those minutes stick out in my mind more than a decade after they happened.

Frogs, the deadliest foes.

Years later, I’m not sure that it was such a great idea, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. We eventually made our way to her favorite Greek coffee and pastry shop, and the evening eventually did end, even if it ended at five o’clock the next morning. Life moved on, and I hadn’t thought about The House of the Dead 2 for a long time.

All of this came rushing back when I saw a trailer for Namco Bandai’s new horror arcade game, Dark Escape 4D. The trailer showed a man and a woman playing a horror arcade shooter; the parallels to my experience with The House of the Dead 2 hit me square on the memory button. Judging by the trailer, by engaging the tactile, auditory, and visual senses and monitoring the players’ heart rates, Dark Escape 4D points to the promise that arcades hold: the ability to offer experiences that cannot be replicated by home consoles. Sure, I can reproduce the experience of playing The House of the Dead 2 with a Wii Zapper, a really nice TV, and a dark room. But there are some things that the home consoles can’t replicate, like the feel of using the rifle and the camera zoom in Silent Scope. Similarly, I wouldn’t be able to duplicate Dark Escape 4D without a serious investment of time and resources.

No console could replicate the feel of holding the rifle or looking into the scope.

The question of getting our friends and family into sharing the joy of playing games is popular and frequent blog fodder. More often than not, the response involves helping the neophyte get over the mechanics of playing a video game these days because using two joysticks to navigate a world isn’t intuitive to everyone. Every time I see a writer address the question, I think of the time I played The House of the Dead 2 with my prom date that night, how quickly she was able to grasp the mechanics of it, but how quickly she felt finished with the experience. It’s not always a matter of mechanics; it’s a matter of investment.


Nintendo is a Heck of a Lot Smarter Than ‘Hardcore’ Gamers Would Like to Believe

How often do you read a post on Twitter, a gaming forum or in the comments of an article about Nintendo, where “hardcore” gamers deride Nintendo for making underpowered hardware that is more concerned with being accessible to a wide audience than pushing the technological envelope?

Here’s three I found in short order as I sat down to write this post:

“Nintendo jumped the gun with this console (WiiU)–the Wii was a success purely because it primarily catered to the casual gaming crowd.”

“The Wii was short-term miracle that won’t be repeated in the future. Nintendo doesn’t seem to have a long term strategy and is dangerously out of touch with gaming in general IMHO.”

“$299+ for a console with specs basically the same as (or worse than) cheaper competing models that are being replaced by something much better in a year? Seems like poor planning on Nintendo’s part.”

Does this sentiment sound familiar? It should, because we’ve been hearing it since shortly after the launch of the first Wii. Which, by the way, went on to sell 100 million units. We also heard it after the bumpy start of the 3DS, which has since gone on to sell 22 million units worldwide (in less than two years).

A lot of “hardcore” gamers seem to want the WiiU to fail, and many of those same gamers are the ones who scoff at the idea of mobile gaming, despite the enormous growth of games for iOS and Android devices over the past few years.

But ironically, it’s the “hardcore” gamers that are the short-sighted ones here. Because the fact of the matter is that the AAA, big-budget technological marvels that defined this gaming generation are going to be a smaller part of the next one. What “hardcore” gamers see as “casual” gaming will become the norm, and what they consider to be the mainstream now will become a niche market in the next generation.

And that’s why they’re all angry at Nintendo–because Nintendo isn’t railing against the move toward more accessible gaming experiences, they are embracing it. Nintendo gets it–more than Microsoft, and certainly more than Sony. And Nintendo has once again positioned themselves to be successful in the next console cycle. They have an HD-capable machine that can provide a spectrum of gaming experiences, from “casual” to “hardcore.” They have a stable of first-party franchises and characters that adult gamers grew up with and kids are immediately drawn to. And when it comes to their user interface and aesthetics, they would rather be charming than edgy, which results in a wider appeal.

Neilsen just did a survey in which they asked kids ages 6 to 12 what electronics and gaming devices were on their holiday wish lists this year. Of the top five, four of them belonged to Apple. The iPad topped the list at 48%. Number two? The WiiU.

This week, word came out that Microsoft was planning on releasing two versions of its next console. One version would be geared toward higher end, more technologically intensive gaming experiences, while the other version would be more of an entertainment hub, with the ability to download and play XBox Live Arcade titles and smaller games. Sounds like Microsoft is starting to get it, but I’m not sure that creating two versions of the next XBox is the right way to go. In any case, they’ve seen the writing on the wall that the “hardcore” market is shrinking, and they are beginning to adjust.

It was also revealed this week that while Nintendo is selling the WiiU at a small loss, as soon as a consumer buys one game for the console, it becomes profitable for Nintendo. Odds are that will not be the case with the next XBox (the high end version) or PlayStation.

So as “casual” games continue to become more popular, and console develoeprs continue to leave to develop for mobile platforms instead, “hardcore” gamers continue to yell that Nintendo doesn’t get it. In reality, Nintendo began to adjust their long-term strategy with the Wii, and that has continued with the 3DS and now the WiiU. Of the big three console manufacturers, Nintendo is poised to be the most successful in the future. If I was Sony and Microsoft right now, I’d be terrified, as they are developing new hardware for an audience that is getting smaller, and with publishers and developers who are afraid to take risks with big budget games.

The next year sure is going to be very interesting.

**If you’re wondering why I put the terms “casual” and “hardcore” in quotes for the entire post, it’s because they are nonsensical terms that are usually used by avid gamers to separate themselves from less avid gamers. 


This Holiday Gaming Season, It’s All About the Handhelds for Me

As I was scouring the internet looking at Black Friday game deals, a thought occurred to me–this is the first year I can remember where there are more handheld games I want to play than console/PC ones.

For the purposes of this post, let’s call the holiday gaming season September 2012 to February 2013.

Just off the top of my head, here’s the list of current and upcoming (in the next month or two) console/PC games I’m playing/interested in right now (as well as my preferred platform):

Halo 4 (XBox 360)
CoD: Black Ops 2 (XBox 360)
Borderlands 2 (XBox 360)
Dishonored (PS3)
Hawken (PC)
ZombiU (even though I don’t have a WiiU yet)
Black Mesa Source (PC)
Star Wars: The Old Republic (PC)
Crysis 3 (Xbox 360)
Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut (PS3)
Dead Space 3 (PS3)
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (PS3)

Here’s the handheld list:

Pokemon Black/White Version 2 (3DS)
Silent Hill: Book of Memories (PS Vita)
LEGO Lord of the Rings (3DS)
LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (3DS)
Little Big Planet Vita (PS Vita)
Kingdom Hearts 3D (3DS)
Adventure Time: Hey Ice King, Why’d You Steal Our Garbage? (3DS)
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (PS Vita)
Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion (3DS)
Playstation All-Stars: Battle Royale (PS Vita)
Persona 4 Golden (PS Vita)
Retro City Rampage (PS Vita)
Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (PS Vita)
Uncharted: Fight for Fortune (PS Vita)
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
Castlevania Lords of Shadow: Mirror of Fate (3DS)
Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS Vita)

What’s more interesting to me as I look over that list is that there are games I would rather play on handheld than on console/PC. Retro City Rampage, Sly Cooper, Assassin’s Creed, Ratchet & Clank and the LEGO games are all ones that I would prefer on either the 3DS or Vita instead of on the larger platforms. In fact, the only games I can definitively say i’d rather not play on a handheld are first-person shooters and larger RPGs that just could not be done on a handheld.

I’m not exactly sure why I feel this way, but I suspect it’s because I no longer have time in my life for the marathon gaming sessions of even a few years ago. I get 1-2 hour increments at the most, and I squeeze them in wherever I can. So, I tend to want my games in a format that is easily accessible and consumable in bite-size chunks. But I also still want a meatier experience than most iOS and Android games can provide at this point. when it comes to console and PC now, I reserve that precious time for experiences that I can’t get on a handheld.

I think a lot of my friends are still finding the time to play console and PC games on a more regular basis than me, and their preferences are now the opposite of mine. They have little interest in either the 3DS or the Vita, whereas I find myself gravitating toward them more and more.


Gaming Stories: Halo 3

We all have anecdotes about our games, and the power of single-player video games lies in the games’ ability to bind us with shared moments. If I know that you’ve also played Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, I can reasonably assume that you too faced the disappointing final boss in an empty and anti-climactic mansion. It’s a common touchpoint, and communities are built on sharing our experiences.

So, from now until the end of the year, I’m going to try to share one of my gaming stories a day. The goal is not to recap the game’s events but to tell my story of that moment, almost like building my personal gaming memoir.  
Since Halo 4 was released last week, let’s revisit my favorite moment from Halo 3, which I’ve titled “The Taking of Scarabs 1, 2, Boom.”

For as large the scope of the Halo series has been, it’s a surprisingly solitary experience. Humanity is losing an intergalactic war, but the chapter “The Covenant” in Halo 3 was the first time that I felt like I was a part of a great war. The fiction places the Master Chief as a monumental figure, the demon of death feared by humanity’s enemies, but he is usually a solitary operator in the field. The space battle taking place above Earth outside Cairo Station at the beginning of Halo 2 was nice to observe, but ships blowing up in the distance didn’t convey to me the feeling of being part of something grander. So, when cutscene that opened “The Covenant” showed seven dropships in formation ready to conduct a coordinated strike on enemy bases, I sensed that this chapter would be different. 
Once the combat started, however, the game’s scope narrowed again. With our forces divided to hit the enemy in three simultaneous blows, I was alone to face the opposition in my tower. I remained alone even when I flew over to another tower to rectify the botched mission there.
Once the three towers were under friendly control, and I boarded a Scorpion tank in silence. As part of the metagame between the developers and the player, I knew that I would not have been given control of a tank unless I was going to face a challenge that required it. We moved from a vibrant and sunny shore through a tunnel to snowy mountains that were lit by a weak sun. The lonely piano at the beginning of “One Final Effort” is almost wistful, one set of notes repeating the other in a different octave, and I saw the snowy plain where the battle would take place. The strings have joined the piano, but I’ve lost a passenger on my Scorpion tank. The strings are have become more energetic, and I’m struggling to navigate the snowy cliffs in my unwieldy tank while fighting a combination of enemy Ghosts, Wraiths, Prowlers, and turrets. 
“Hornets in-bound!”
Even the piano had picked up the pace by now to join the strings’ energy. A Scorpion tank and Hornets? Something wasn’t right. We used the Hornet earlier in the chapter to escort a dropship and engaged in dogfights against Banshees, but we’ve been on the ground since then. The passengers on my tank have all perished, and the tank itself is on fire.  
Two Scarabs! Repeat, two Scarabs!

“I count two Scarabs. Repeat, two Scarabs!”

Well, now I knew why the developers have given me all this firepower. 
The air started swarming with Hornets and Banshees, joined by the pounding music. I had to choose how to solve this combat puzzle. We had taken out a Scarab in Halo 2 on foot and a Scarab earlier in Halo 3‘s chapter, “The Storm,” on a Mongoose. Should I use the Scorpion or the Gauss Warthog to knock the Scarab down so I can board it to destroy it? Should I just use the Scorpion’s cannon to fire directly on the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction? I could, but enemy Ghosts scampered to and fro, almost vibrating in their enthusiasm to stop me. Should I use the Hornet to destroy the Scarabs from the air? I could, but enemy Banshees vied with friendly Hornets and a friendly Pelican dropship for air superiority. 
I made my choice. I would take to the skies. I weaved in between enemy fire, and I was methodical in my assault. I destroyed the enemy Banshees. I wrecked the Scarabs’ main guns and bombarded the troops who dared to show themselves on the Scarabs’ decks. I stripped the Scarabs’ of their armor. And then I directed those rockets into the Scarabs’ engines to trigger their destruction. I had felt like the god of death and destruction that the Covenant’s Grunts ran in fear from before, but this was on a greater scale than ever before. The music swelled, the Scarabs’ engines finally went critical, and there was a satisfying “Boom.” 
“Both Scarabs down. Well done.”
Thanks, Cortana. I like to take pride in my work.
“Kill the stragglers.”
Oh. That’s a bit bloodthirsty of you, but what’s a few aliens more? The music is positively triumphant, almost inspirational, as I did what Cortana asked.
“Calamity! If we only had more time.” 
As I crossed the bridge to my next mission objective, the strings faded away to one sustained note, and the melancholy piano returned. I agreed with 343 Guilty Spark. That was the series’s finest moment, the perfect melding of music and player control in a combat puzzle, and this was the closest the Halo games came to matching the scope that it tried to present. This near perfect moment was all too brief, and replaying the section would be nothing more than chasing that high to diminishing returns. I secured that memory and moved on to slay some more aliens.

‘Forward Unto Dawn’ Brought Me Back to Halo

As I write this, it’s Halo 4 launch day, and I just picked up my copy of the game. Two days ago however, I hadn’t even planned on picking up Halo 4 at launch, as I was only planning on picking up one shooter this holiday season, and had made the decision that I’d be getting Call of Duty: Black Ops II instead.

But a funny thing happened over the past couple of days–I came to realize that the Halo franchise is really the only first-person shooter series I’ve been consistently interested in this console generation (and the one prior). Watching the excellent Forward Unto Dawn web series drove home that realization, and after watching the first couple episodes, I preordered the game in the eleventh hour.

When I say that I’ve been consistently interested in the franchise, what I mean is that I’ve played all of the Halo games, and I’ve completed the campaigns in each one. As I thought about it, I realized that the Halo series is the only FPS series that I have completed all of the campaigns in. In Call of Duty, the last campaign I finished was World at War. For Resistance, I didn’t even play the third game. Same for Gears of War. But the combination of story and setting in the Halo games kept me interested in the universe enough to complete all of the games, and it’s what’s brought me back for the latest installment.

I realize that for a lot of people, this is the opposite of why they play Halo. For many, it’s the multiplayer component that brings them back each time. And while multiplayer has always been executed very well in the Halo series, I’ve never been a big fan of it (probably because I’m not very good at it). I usually a handful of hours with the multiplayer of each game, and then move on to other shooters I fare better at. The last time I played a Halo game, it was the multiplayer mode for Reach, and my apathy for that part of the game is why I wasn’t overly excited about Halo 4. So much of the media coverage dedicated to the game is focused on multiplayer, that it’s easy to forget about the campaign.

But the campaigns have always been great in my mind (even Halo 2), and Reach’s was fantastic. The last moments of that campaign provided one of the most emotionally powerful experiences that I’ve ever had in a game. Seeing Forward unto Dawn made me realize that I am excited about the return of Master Chief, and I want to learn more about the Forerunners, and what happens to Cortana’s sanity as the end of her life draws closer.

My interest in Halo over other shooters makes sense to me when I think about my gaming preferences as a whole. I’m an RPG nerd–I need a world I can get immersed in. Story, setting and characters trump gameplay for me. When compared to other shooter series, there’s a lot more to explore in the Halo universe.

So, while Forward Unto Dawn was primarily designed to introduce new players to the series, it has served to bring me back and remind me why I became of fan of the universe in the first place.


Let the (PC) Games Begin!

Due to a recent meltdown of my current laptop, and a very good sale that Dell was having at the time, I am the proud owner of a new XPS 15. This new laptop is much more equipped for gaming than my previous one, and I am chomping at the bit to dive into some of the great games out there for PC right now. The problem is, there’s so much out there, I’m having a tough time deciding where to go first.

One thing I do know is that I’ll be picking up Guild Wars 2, as it’s a game I’ve had my eye on for quite some time. I’m an RPG nerd, and I love the idea of an MMO, but not the idea of subscription fees. I’ve enjoyed DC Universe Online on the PS3, and Guild Wars 2 has gotten rave reviews so far, so that’s a must buy for me. I also plan on getting into Star Wars: The Old Republic when it switches over to F2P.

Outside of MMOs though, I have no idea where I want to go. I’d love to learn how to play shooters with a mouse and keyboard, so I think I may dive into some Team Fortress 2, since that’s free and much more forgiving than some of the more hardcore shooters, which will give me a chance to hone my skills.

I’m very interested in playing some horror games, like Amnesia, or the Penumbra series. I’ve also heard some good things about Anna.

Right now, the possibilities are endless, and that’s really exciting. if people have suggestions as to what games I should be checking out, I’m all ears. in the meantime, I’ll be posting about whatever I’m playing.

The Year With No New Games-Part 5: “Mastery”

This weekend, I relaxed and didn’t play a game at all. I didn’t load up 10000000 on my iPad. I didn’t play Spec Ops: The Line on my 360. I didn’t charge up the DS Lite in order to play yet another game of Civilization Revolution. Instead, I just sat back and watched as some of the best speedrunners in the world plied their craft for the
Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon to raise funds for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network).

Last time, I discussed briefly the idea of tedium of play that comes with 100% completion. Watching these players break down games by pixel movements with perfect timing, like some of the jumps in cyghfer‘s run of Bucky O’Hare on Hard mode, where the player loses a life with just one hit, or exploit game glitches like dram55‘s use of ceiling sticking in Super Mario World and cyghfer’s use of a glitch that allowed him to enter walls and teleport up a screen in Mega Man 2 showed that mastery of a game inside and out can come with “tedium of play.”

One of my secret sources of gamer pride is the fact that, once upon a time, I could complete Streets of Rage 2 in less than 50 minutes on hard mode using Axel. Because I only owned 4 games for the Sega Genesis (or the Sega Mega Drive, if you’re so inclined), I would say that I mastered Streets of Rage 2. I knew combos for each character, the timing and placement for weapons dropped by enemies or found in the stage, and most importantly, a certain standard for quickly I could finish the game and how high my score should be.

A quick word about Streets of Rage 2, which I will contend was a better game than any of the Final Fight games. I’d go as far as saying that Streets of Rage 2 is the finest side-scrolling brawler of the 16-bit generation. I’d also go as far as saying that beating Streets of Rage 2 with Axel or Max on Mania mode, the highest difficulty level, is a very different experience than beating it with Blaze or Skate. Finally, while Streets of Rage 2 had no in-game achievements (until the re-releases on Xbox Live Arcade and in Sonic’s Ultimate Genesis Collection), beating Streets of Rage 2 with Blaze and Skate on Mania mode would be as close to 100% completion as one could get. It took months of attempts to grinding the game, finding the optimal timing and strategies to handle enemies before I could beat it with Blaze. It took years of off-and-on play until I could beat it with Skate. So why didn’t I consider this tedious?

The easy answer would be that I didn’t find grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I mastered it because I had no other games to play. Another easy explanation would be that tedium looks very different to an adolescent boy with limited responsibilities than to a man with limited leisure time. But I think that the tedium comes with the artificial structure, that the implementation of achievements, trophies, and Gamer Points and my psychological acceptance lays the foundation for me to find the act of play a chore.

Grinding Streets of Rage 2 and grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 are very different things, even though the same vocabulary is used to describe both. Grinding Streets of Rage 2 until I could beat it with the toughest characters to use on the hardest difficulty mode meant that I was still playing through the game, progressing through different environments, hearing different tracks, and experiencing different stimulation. Grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement meant, as I mentioned last time, meant that I was herding other willing players into a building on a multiplayer map and blowing the building up with C4, hoping that the game would recognize those kills as mine.  Grinding Streets of Rage 2 meant that I was achieving mastery; grinding for the “Demolition Man” achievement that I was filling up a bar in a game.

Seeing the speedrunners come near world record times for games like Batman (NES) and Bad Street Brawler reminded me of what mastery of a game and pride in your play looked like. Whenever you’re feeling burnt out on gaming, take a look at speedrun archives like Speed Demos Archive, a stream on SpeedRunsLive, or even a playthrough on Let’s Play Archive. Sometimes, seeing someone who really knows what he or she is doing with a game is the cure to gaming burnout.

Also, please check out Team Sp00ky‘s archive of the Kings of Poverty’s speedrun marathon (part 1 and part 2) and donate to RAINN, either through the Kings of Poverty’s collection or directly.