U-Pick VG IV: Mission Success

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The latest U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity is officially over!  For 48 consecutive hours, the U-Pick Crew played a pile of video games for a good cause.  We battled brutal skeletons in Dark Souls, struggled with mech controls in Steel Battalion, and slapped each other silly in GoldenEye 007.

After the dust settled (and the consoles were turned off), U-Pick Marathon IV raised over $5000 for charity:water. Thanks to these generous donations, 168 people in Uganda will have access to renewable clean water sources.

In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year walking for water. Women and children usually bear the burden of water collection, walking miles to the nearest source, which is unprotected and likely contaminated.  It is amazing that the efforts of U-Pick and its supporters (along with charity: water) can make such a positive impact on the world through the joy of video games.

If you missed the marathon, fear not!  There is still time to donate to this worthwhile cause!  The current charity:water campaign is still accepting donations until June 30th, 2015.  Also, the entire 50+ hour video of U-Pick IV will be available to watch on Twitch for the next week.  Check it out here!

Many woots to Grant, Stephonee, and the rest of the U-Pick Crew!  Huge thanks to everyone who watched and donated! Please stay tuned to the U-Pick website, Twitter, and Facebook page for future livestreams and charity marathons.  And remember, GAME FOR GOOD!

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Mark Your Calendars: U-Pick IV Charity Marathon Begins in Two Days

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The time is nearly upon us- the fourth U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity starts this Friday at 8pm EST!

During the 48-hour-long continuous livestream, we’ll play the video games you pick to raise money for charity:water, to bring clean water access to people who need it in the developing world. The donation page is here:

https://my.charitywater.org/upickvg-iv-video-game-marathon

Starting the evening of June 12th and ending the evening of June 14th, we’ll play the games you choose when making a donation to our charity fundraiser. We’ll switch games each hour (on the hour), as determined by a spin on the Wheel of Destiny – a magical rotating device with all of the top games that have received donations.

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Similar rules apply from previous years- donate, pick a game from this list: http://wp.me/p47vWj-6U and leave the name of the game in your comment.  In the meantime, you can read some delightful reviews from the U-Pick Crew on the games from this year’s list, like Deadly Premonition, Steel Battalion, and Hyrule Beyblade Go Go Fight Yes!

We have increased our charity goal to $5000 this year, and we’ve already had over $1000 donated so far.  At this point, at least 34 people will get access to a renewable clean water source in Uganda. Please help us in achieving another successful marathon!

Remember, 100% of everything we raise will directly fund water projects in Uganda. And when those projects are finished, charity: water will send you proof in pictures and GPS coordinates, so you can see the actual people and communities you impacted.

So spread the word about U-Pick IV, donate, tune in, and as always, GAME FOR GOOD.

 

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The Majestic Music of Daytona USA

Most of my time spent with racing games has been in the form of dedicated arcade cabinets shaped like the virtual cars I am driving.  The feel of a steering wheel in my hands and a pair of pedals at my feet engages me in a totally different way than simply playing with a controller on my couch. However, there is a drawback to this sort of experience: obnoxious arcade noise.

Depending on the build of the cabinet and the strength of the speakers, a racing game soundtrack is easily drowned out by the ambient sounds of chattering children playing on other machines.  On the rare occasion that the music is cranked up to 11, the featured tunes are often licensed tracks from current pop music. This is a shame, because so many of these arcade racing titles feature original and immersive music that gets the adrenaline pumping.

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Recently, I became the proud owner of a Sega Saturn along with a handful of games.  Among the stack of titles included with this console was a port of my favorite arcade racer, Daytona USA.  A common cabinet across the United States, this game seemed to show up in every arcade, pizza parlor, and bowling alley around my home town.  In spite of dropping piles of quarters into this machine, I never heard the game soundtrack while playing until I hooked up the Sega Saturn.  As I started Daytona USA, I was delighted to hear this fantastic song:

This majestic ballad was used as the attract mode for the arcade cabinet, but I had never been called by its siren song before. Composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi provided the vocals for the entire arcade soundtrack via synthesizer, and he went the extra mile for the Saturn port by re-recording each song with real instruments and re-singing all of the lyrics.  Mitsuyoshi was also a member of the Sega Sound Team Band, which gave him the opportunity to perform game music in front of live audiences, including the beloved Daytona USA soundtrack.

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Every song in Daytona USA is so earnest and filled with upbeat sounds that match the colorful racing so well.  From the first bellow of, “ROLLING STARRRRT,” I was ready to put the pedal to the metal in this virtual world.  The game was eventually ported to the Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network, where the popularity of its soundtrack led to the inclusion of a Karaoke Mode.  In this mode, players can sing along with Mitsuyoshi’s vocals as lyrics bounce along beneath the racing action.

As the arcade halls of my youth are fading away in American culture, I am a bit sad to see dedicated racing cabinets go the way of the dinosaur and floppy disks.  I will miss crawling into a bucket seat, taking hold of a steering wheel, and driving through a virtual raceway.  But I suppose being able to sing along with The King of Speed in the comfort of my own home is a suitable trade-off.

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Gateway Games: Racing

For 2015, we are debuting a new column here at Games I Made My Girlfriend Play: Gateway Games. Written by Laura, these posts will highlight different genres of video games and recommend specific franchises or titles to get folks playing.  To kick off this new series of articles, we are taking the next few weeks to discuss one of Laura’s preferred gaming genres- racing games!


Racing is a pretty broad genre of video games. The title of “racing game” can be applied to pretty much any type of game where the player engages in some sort of competition from point A to point B (using anything from snowboards to jet skis to dragons). In this case, we’re going to talk specifically about racing games with cars.

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I particularly love car racing games because their challenges can easily be completed in under 20 minutes. This makes racing a great introduction for new players, as well as a fun pastime for casual gamers or enthusiasts with limited time.

Generally speaking, most car racing games fall in a spectrum between arcade style and various degrees of racing simulations.

Arcade style games are more approachable to the casual gamer, particularly if they have no interest in cars or racing. The focus is less on a realistic experience and more on a fun and exciting one. The physics can be …inventive, the tracks…creative, and proper racing technique more or less irrelevant.

Semi-simulation games fall in the middle of the arcade-simulation spectrum. They push realism and physics, but still remain approachable to the average player. There is more emphasis on proper technique, but there are also aids in place (automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, not blowing up when your car careens into a wall at 200 mph) that allow the player to focus on the race instead of micromanaging rpms.

True racing simulators focus heavily on vehicular behavior physics and proper technique. Games like the NASCAR or Formula One series, or iRacing are technical and more difficult to master. I don’t particularly enjoy this sort of game, so I wouldn’t advocate them to beginners or people are not into real life racing.

Also, for this purpose of this guide, I’m going to focus on game franchises rather than individual games. Most of the games listed below are available across multiple platforms in one form or another. The pros, the cons, and the spirit of each game remains constant across the series.

Here are five series that can pave the way to the world of racing games.

Beginner

While Mario Kart is not technically a “car” racer (it’s a “kart” racer, if you want to get specific) let’s crawl before we walk, shall we? This is by far the most approachable racing game I’ve played. Mario Kart was designed for all ages so it’s aesthetically interesting, technically manageable, and not the least bit concerned with the proper physics of a dinosaur riding a motorcycle.

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There are power-ups that imbue a player with temporary abilities that make it easier for less experienced players to place higher than they might based on technique alone. They also ensure that experience is not a guarantee of success (the blue shell humbles all). There are a number of challenges and little games that take the focus off of winning races and allow you to work as a team. Mario Kart is also great for parties. If you can get a group over for a party, you can apply the persuasive leverage of peer pressure to turn it into a full blown Mario Kart-y.

Also consider Burnout
The Burnout series is way less concerned with a player actually winning races and more about causing as much damage as possible by the laws of whatever physics engine the game employs. If your loved one needs a way to vent their suppressed road rage, this might be the ticket. If Mario Kart is go-karts, Burnout is bumper cars on fire.

Intermediate

Need for Speed an open-world racer which allows for a freedom of movement you don’t get in many other games. The missions are fun and face-paced and the cars are highly customizable, which adds an extra layer of fun. If you want to get your loved one invested in your Need for Speed game, let them design a car for you. Even if they don’t want to play, they may be more willing to watch you play with the gorgeous machine they made with their own two thumbsticks.

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Also consider Forza
Forza and Need for Speed are compared heavily to one another. They are both open world racing games with amazing graphics, but each satisfies different markets. Need for Speed is for the arcade crowd, Forza is more a simulator.  

Enthusiast

Gran Turismo might not classify as a “true” racing simulator (I don’t know enough about cars or racing to tell you why), but it is a solid choice for casual gamers and enthusiasts.

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Gran Turismo allows you to experience high speed racing without the guilt of potentially denting a $1.2 million automobile or careening off the side of a mountain in a ball of fire. A great deal of attention is paid to the appearance and performance of each vehicle, as well as the general feeling of each car. It is a very big game, placing high importance on proper racing technique with the largest collection of cars in a racing game to date.

These things may be intimidating beginners, but I can still recommend Gran Turismo to people with little experience. The game does a very good job of preparing the player for difficult races with its license-testing system, which barricades the player from progressing to higher levels without proving they have mastered the necessary techniques. That might sound menacing, but the learning curve is actually very gentle.

Additional Tips

  • Let loved ones watch you play. I started playing racing games after watching an old boyfriend play them. Sometimes, people will be willing to investigate something you like simply because they want to connect with you.
  • It’s easier to approach something new when you are with other novices. Invite a small group over for a Mario Kart party. People tend warm up to new experiences (and each other) quickly when they are all equally terrible at something.
  • Be nice and be patient. One disadvantage of co-op racing games is that you are usually in direct competition with one another, rather than working toward the same goal. I cannot stress enough the importance of being a good sport. Being terrible at something is only fun for so long, and that length of time has a direct negative correlation with how crappy a winner you are. Don’t gloat. Be encouraging. Cheer them on. We all like to have someone in our corner.

These are just friendly guidelines. Your loved one may love Mario Kart, but he might be completely disinterested in the other games on our list. She may have a particular affinity for the technical precision of racing simulators. She might love Need for Speed, but steer away from Mario Kart. This entire genre might not be to their taste.

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These games are just good starting points for you to test the waters. The key is to be receptive. Ask what they like about a game and what they don’t like. Are arcade style games too fast-paced? Are racing simulators too technical? Do they like customizing cars? The side challenges? You can use these responses to tailor your recommendations for them and find a common ground to enjoy together in the fast lane.

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Achievement Unlocked: Published Gaming Magazine

Component is the realization of a dream: to make a gaming publication that celebrates the joy of a beloved pastime.  The goal of this magazine is to bridge the gap between players. To share personal experiences and individual viewpoints with the rest of the gaming world. To encourage others to forge their own connections, and share the joy that our collective hobby can provide.

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Each issue will have a central theme, and features a collection of essays and artwork on the subject of video games. Component is available as a print-on-demand magazine through Blurb and as an instant PDF, sold directly through the Component website. The editor and contributors of Component thoroughly believe in gaming for good causes, so 100% of the profits from Component will be donated to the U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity.

The first issue is filled with stories about our most cherished games. Some are first encounters where a lasting bond was established. Others are tales of transition, where these beloved games have stood by our side as a supportive medium. All of them reflect the wonder that can be found in moments of play and through them we share the happiness of a cherished hobby.

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Games highlighted in the articles and artwork of Issue One include Mega Man 2, Super Mario 64, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Metal Gear Solid, Spyro the Dragon, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Pokémon: Yellow Version, Halo: Combat Evolved, and Okami.

Component will be released semi-annually, and the second issue has a tentative release of December 2015.  Please be sure to follow Chip, the editor of Component, on Twitter (@gimmgp) for news about the magazine and related video game musings.  You can also check our Blog page for updates and other works from our brilliant and creative contributors.

Thank you for reading and please be sure to check out Issue One: Our Games for all sorts of gaming goodness.

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Visiting Mario’s World in Weekly U-Pick Broadcasts

Keeping with our New Year’s resolution, the U-Pick Crew has been streaming fresh batches of games every week. These casual broadcasts are rehearsals for the bigger charity event on June 12th-14th.  Every Sunday at 4pm EDT (8pm UTC), we play hours of interesting and enjoyable games for our beloved viewers.

This week, U-Pick will be playing some of the big hitters from the hallowed halls of gaming.  We will explore the remote reaches of the galaxy with Samus in Super Metroid, join forces with Disney and Square-Enix to battle the Heartless in Kingdom Hearts, and take a nice vacation to Dinosaur Land in Super Mario World.

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To prepare for our journey with the Mario Brothers, the U-Pick Crew has been enjoying videos like the one covered in this article from February 2014.  Please be sure to check our Watch Now page today at 4pm EDT for some gaming goodness!


My earliest experiences with the Mario Brothers were not spent playing, but reading the instruction manual while my younger brother rushed through the very first game on our Nintendo Entertainment System.  As I scoured over the game controls and characters, my brother would enjoy this relatively new experience with the ease of a much older player.  All of Mario’s moves seemed natural to him, as if he had traveled these fantastic worlds for years.  The reality of the situation is that my brother has better eye-to-hand coordination than I do, but the level design of Super Mario Brothers had something to do with his genius as well.

Think back to that very first level, World 1-1.  There was no tutorial, no overt guidance for the player; only a stubby little plumber standing on the far left side of a screen.  Any attempt to travel further left would result in the player hitting a wall, so to the right we must go.  Oh no, there’s an angry mushroom heading your way.  Quick, try one of those red buttons on the controller.  Okay, ‘B’ doesn’t do anything… what about ‘A?’  Ooh, you made Mario jump!  Try to stomp that mean looking guy.  Hey, you squished him, good job.  No time to celebrate though; there is a timer counting down up there.  Let’s get going.

The design of these early Mario games provided levels that taught players the rules without beating them over the head with exposition and hand-holding.  Almost all of the necessary skills could be communicated through visuals and the experience of play.  To sweeten the deal, these games had a reliably steady difficulty curve.  Each concurrent stage added new challenges, but they hardly ever put the player in a situation without the resources to learn and grow.  This trend of difficult but fair level design has continued in the Mario Brothers series to this day.

Over the years, I have enjoyed many titles in the Mario series.  I would consider myself a rather advanced player; not a genius like my brother, but someone who has played enough of these games to acquire skills beyond the average level.  I have put in the hours, completed dozens of stages, and stomped many a koopa troopa.  In other words, I am pretty damn good at Mario.  However, I recently witnessed a charity event that humbled me to my very nerdy core.

Awesome Games Done Quick 2014 started on January 5th and featured some of the most amazing speed-runners playing games and accepting donations for the Prevent Cancer Foundation.  Over the course of seven days, 115+ games were played continuously for charity, including a hearty block of titles from the Super Mario series.  I just happened to tune in right at the start of a race between two players in the SNES classic, Super Mario World.  What I saw in that livestream blew me away:

Just look at these guys- they never seem to stop running!  They are using tricks within the game design that I have never seen before.  It seems like every level is not merely a slog from left-to-right, but a challenge to discover new and inventive ways to speed through the game.  While they do exploit some glitches over the course of play, the meat of their performance comes from intentional secrets and layouts within the level design.  This is particularly noticeable in the stages made up of platforms or mushrooms suspended above bottomless pits.  It looks like the placement of enemies was designed to be vaulted upon for a quick trip through difficult levels.  It’s as if the designers wanted to reward dedicated players with the means to bypass the usual routes and discover entirely new ways for Mario to travel.  This intention from the designers is made even more clear through the Super Play videos included in the more recent Mario titles.

That is the lesson I have come to realize in between the moments of actually playing games with the Mario Brothers.  There is an amazing balance in the design of these levels so any player can pick up the controller and have a worthwhile experience.  The novice players can discover a new hobby that eases them into the game with intuitive controls and a steady difficulty curve.  World 1 will prepare them for World 2, which will prepare them for World 3 and so on.  Behind the scenes, these levels have expert routes carved into the background; perfect paths with a hidden time limit that provides a challenge to the expert who is looking for something new in a beloved game.  For every level that made good use of my instruction manual studies, there is a stage that provided a seamless flow of play for my brother.  It seems that across the long list of games in the Mario Universe, there is a level for every player.

For the record, the level for me is World 1-7 from Yoshi’s Island: Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy.  But that’s just because I am a sucker for trippin’ dinosaurs.

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Charity Marathon Incoming! UPickVG IV – June 12th-14th 2015

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The time has come, my friends.  Our beloved streaming crew has returned.  The latest U-Pick Video Game Marathon for Charity will be broadcast live on the interwebs June 12th-14th, 2015!

During the 48-hour-long continuous livestream, we’ll play the video games you pick to raise money for charity:water, to bring clean water access to people who need it in the developing world.

Starting the evening of June 12th and going for the following 48 straight hours, we’ll play the games you choose when making a donation to our charity fundraiser. We’ll switch games each hour (on the hour), as determined by a spin on the Wheel of Destiny – a magical rotating device with all of the top games that have received donations.

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Got ideas for what games should be on the list? GOOD. You can request games for UPickVG IV right now on our Request Games page. The sky’s the limit: name any game you can think of that you would pay money (to charity) to see played!

We’ll be taking suggestions for UPickVG IV on the Request Games page up until May 1st. At that point, the “Voting Period” begins, and we’ll throw everything that’s been suggested into a big ol’ internet poll – and you’ll be able to vote for your favorites! Don’t worry, you’ll be able to vote for more than one game, and we’ll let you vote more than once, too.

Once the votes are in, we’ll put together the ultimate list of video games available for UPickVG IV – and we’ll open the donation floodgates so that you can get the games of your choice up on that Wheel of Destiny.

But what should you be doing between now and then?

We’ve got some ideas!

  1. Get those video game title requests in! Request Games here.
  2. Add the marathon to your calendar so you don’t forget to tune in!
  3. Tell everyone you know about UPickVG and how awesome it’s going to be. Use the graphic up top, and share this post with the sharing buttons down below.
  4. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and LinkedIn. We regularly post cool video game stuff and updates about UPickVG IV.
  5. Visit our Watch Now page every Sunday at 4pm EDT (8pm UTC) – we do live rehearsal broadcasts every week! Tune in, heckle us in the chat, and get hyped for the big marathon on June 12th!

Get Hyped!!

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Favorite Comic Book Games, Pre-2000

Lately, most of my gaming time has been spent swinging through the pixelated byways of New York City. This is due to the latest title featured on my blog Games From the Box– Spider-Man for the original PlayStation.  I have excavated this gem from the treasure trove of games given to me by a good friend, doing whatever it is a spider can.

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For the next two weeks, I will upload photos of the packaging, scans of the instruction manual, and some thoughts on the experience of playing as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  So please be sure to follow Games From the Box for all of the superhero antics!  In the meantime, enjoy this article from June 2014, where I highlight some choice comic book games from the past.


Excelsior, faithful readers of Geek Force Network!  I am taking a bit of a break from the usual analysis of comic book adaptations of video games to glimpse some of the better video game adaptations of comic books.

Like most of the writers here on GFN, I have played quite a few video games over the course of my life.  Many of these glorious digital distractions have been related to the sequential art I so enjoy.  So for the next three posts, I would like to take a selfish diversion and cover my favorite video games based on comic book properties.

For the first of these articles, let’s take a short jump back in time to the last millennium.  A place where video games were just starting to exist on compact discs and major comic book publishers had not made the leap to a digital medium.  An era of licensed video games that didn’t suck super-hard was in full swing, and we the players reaped the benefits.  Obvious classics like the X-Men arcade game and Marvel vs. Capcom were the top dogs of the virtual battlefield.  But this grizzled gamer would like to highlight some great comic book games that made his day back in the 20th century.

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Batman Returns- Super Nintendo Entertainment System

The years have not been kind to the beat ‘em-up genre.  A once great style of games has fallen thanks to a shift to the third-dimension; relegated to emulators and the occasional XBLA/PSN release.  Even worse, all of the licensed beat ‘em-ups of the 1990s have fallen off the map because of legal matters (hence why the Simpsons and X-Men are no longer on XBLA).  But once upon a time, the home consoles caught up to their superior arcade cousins and amazing games were made as a result.

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Like so many comic book movies of the 1990s, Batman Returns had several different video game adaptations.  The version I remember most was on the Super Nintendo.  A traditional left-to-right beat ‘em-up, Batman Returns stood out due to its gorgeous artwork and an excellent soundtrack.  Highly detailed sprites of each member of the Red Triangle Gang battled with the Dark Knight, while photogenic cut scenes fleshed out the story in-between missions.  Top it all off with vehicle levels where the player takes control of the Batmobile, and you have an excellent comic book game.

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time- SNES and Arcade

Years of television, movies, toys, and kids’ cereals have been the identity for Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo. and Donatello.  The fearsome foursome have made their mark on so many forms of media that the average person forgets that these turtles started as comic book vigilantes.  So when it comes to the numerous video games featuring these warrior reptiles, all of the titles are technically comic book adaptations.

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If it isn’t obvious by now, I grew up as a fanatic of TMNT.  So when the Super Nintendo came to our house, it was only a matter of time until the Turtles came home too.  My brother and I became experts at Turtles in Time; playing through every level on maximum difficulty, never losing a life.  But it wasn’t until our local Putt-Putt Golf received their Turtles in Time machine that we were truly challenged.  I had no idea that arcade games could provide a wholly different experience from their home console cousins until I encountered this game.  Many quarters were spent and a lesson was learned on that day.

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Spider-Man – Sony PlayStation

I fully admit that picking a game from the year 2000 is cheating for this list, but I simply can’t leave this one out.  While this title didn’t evoke the same open-world web-swinging of later games, Spider-Man and his comic book ilk had their time to shine on the original PlayStation.

Using the same engine as Tony Hawk Pro Skater, this game features our friendly neighborhood web-slinger battling the bulk of his rogues gallery across New York.  There are tons of hidden costumes and trivia bits to unlock over the course of play, and Stan Lee himself narrates the entire experience.  Even though numerous Spider-Man games had come and gone before the year 2000, this one felt like the first to really tap into the vein of comic book fun.

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And there you have it, my favorite comic book games from the last millennium.  While this list certainly isn’t comprehensive (looking at you Cap’n and the Avengers), it at least covers the titles for which I am most nostalgic.  I would love to recommend some legitimate means to play these games, but thanks to aggressive licensing agreements, most of them will never see a re-release.  So my best advice is to scour pawn shops and yard sales for the actual games, and when all else fails, seek out more creative means *cough-cough-emulators-cough*.

In the meantime, please leave your favorite pre-2000 comic book games in the comments!  I look forward to seeing all the joyful nostalgia that extends beyond the printed page to the digital age.

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First-Person Painting

Whenever highbrow video game enthusiasts want to chastise the state of their preferred hobby, the easiest target for their ire is first-person shooters.  This genre is the low-hanging fruit of the industry, thanks to annual releases that often do little to innovate and a multiplayer community with a rather loathsome reputation.  Too often, I hear my peers use the Call of Duty series as shorthand for sort of low quality cash-in that works against progress in video games.

Even though I have enjoyed many multiplayer sessions with my friends in the past, I tend to join in on using first-person shooters as a punch line for my video game snobbery.  As my free time becomes more precious with age, I don’t want to spend my time playing yet another iteration of a floating gun barrel, presumably attached to a grizzled male protagonist with a crew cut.  My general assumption is that if it’s a first-person shooter, then the game must be disposable and easily forgotten.

So it’s funny that many of the more interesting and memorable gaming experiences of the last decade have been derivations of first-person shooters.  In 2007, I was blown away by the narrative experience and puzzle mechanics of Portal.  Later, I was immersed in games that focused on exploration to tell engaging and emotional stories, like Gone Home and Among the Sleep. Most recently, I have enjoyed the interesting gameplay and storybook atmosphere of The Unfinished Swan.

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Like Portal before it, The Unfinished Swan replaces the traditional arsenal of death-dealing firearms with a single unique tool; in this case, water balloons filled with paint.  The protagonist of The Unfinished Swan is a young boy name Monroe, who finds himself in a completely white space after chasing a swan that has escaped from his mother’s painting.

When the game begins, the player is given control of Monroe, with no direction of how to proceed.  The first area to explore is pristine white; a world where objects cast no shadow and solid borders are practically invisible.  When presented with this space, I fumbled at the controller, mashing buttons to affect the environment while Monroe knocked his shins against phantom park benches and large stones.

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As my finger grazed the shoulder button, Monroe lobbed an inky black balloon, which left a splatter of paint in its wake. I hit the button again, throwing another paint balloon nearby its predecessor. Soon, I was hurling balloons left and right, covering the world around Monroe in a gloopy, ebon mess.  The core mechanic dawned on me- my projectiles were not meant for defense, they were meant for navigation.

The Unfinished Swan expands on this initial painting as the game progresses.  Later, there are temporary paint balloons, water balloons to manipulate growing vines, and even balloons that work like 3D printers, creating platforms for Monroe to traverse.  These mechanics reflect the theme of artistic creation and completion that is presented during the story.  Monroe chases after his late mother’s unfinished art while building on a world made up of the incomplete projects of the resident monarch.  By reinforcing a key aesthetic through gameplay and narrative, The Unfinished Swan further immerses players in an unique experience.

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The Unfinished Swan may not technically be a first-person shooter.  It certainly lacks many of the tropes and attributes of titles like Halo or Battlefield, making the game closer to the adventure genre.  But it is this sort of categorization that often causes consumers to overlook potentially exciting games because of trendy misconceptions and assumed public opinion.  The perspective, controls, and mechanics of The Unfinished Swan are not so far removed from Call of Duty, and they most certainly share a similar ancestor in the first-person games of the past.  The key as a player is to seek out and support interesting and fun experiences, so others will be encouraged to do the same.

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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Game: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Released: Nintendo EAD, March 24th, 2003
System: Nintendo GameCube
Game started: February 15th, 2015
Amount completed: Defeated Kalle Demos in the Forbidden Woods, explored a handful of random islands, picked up so many pigs.

Chip’s Thoughts

Wind Waker did not make a great first impression in 2001.  When a demo reel debuted at Nintendo’s Space World trade show, the internet-at-large took the game to task for its cartoon visuals.  Most of the complaints lodged against Wind Waker were based on a sense of deception.  After all, it was only one year prior at the same trade show that Nintendo unveiled a demo video of a mature-looking Link engaged in an epic sword fight with his nemesis, Ganondorf.  Instead of this gritty and realistic Legend of Zelda game, fans were outraged to see a childish Link parading around in a goofy cartoon world.

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Of course, this feeling of betrayal was no more than a bloated sense of entitlement.  The cel shaded art of Wind Waker turned out to be a fresh change of pace and an intelligent design choice. Whereas other Zelda titles need to be remastered from the ground up to compete with the current market’s hyper-realistic graphics, Wind Waker’s aesthetic needs only a slight bump to HD to impress.  The cartoon visuals are timeless in the same way that classic Disney animated features are; bright colors and simple lines used to their fullest to craft a wondrous world full of fun characters.

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The wide range of expressions that can cross Link’s goofball face still delight me to this day. Additionally, the exaggerated facial changes serve a second function as intuitive clues for the player.  When Link’s large eyes glanced somewhere off-screen and his mouth narrowed into an inquisitive pucker, we knew to look around the room for hidden switches or objects. This sort of interaction with the player is much more engaging than interrupting gameplay to have a nagging fairy explicitly explain where to look for a solution.

Unfortunately, no amount of timeless visuals can make up for poor design choices.  Wind Waker opens with a quaint island village to explore, the potential of a legend to be fulfilled, and a quest with lovable pirates to save your sister.  Then, the story screeches to a halt and all fun is temporarily sucked out of the game, thanks to a dungeon filled with crumby stealth sections.

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Stealth is a gameplay mechanic that should NEVER be included in a game where stealth is not the focus.  It is already a challenge to pull off sneaking and silence as the central mechanic of a game, so adding it as an extra feature is a fool’s errand. Since Link made the transition to 3D, every game seems to feature some sort of frustrating stealth section that betrays the core concepts of Zelda gameplay.  Instead of learning to master his sword and delve into complex dungeons, Link has to slink unarmed in the shadows.  The penalty for being caught is equally frustrating- forcing the player back to the start of the dungeon as Link is automatically thrown into a jail cell every time he gets spotted.

Fortunately, this narrow stealth-based dungeon gives way to a huge ocean world covered in mysterious islands.  Exploring the waters of Wind Waker is a interesting alternative to the traditional Zelda adventure.  It’s easy to feel a sense of excitement as the wind picks up and Link hoists his sail.  The vast number of islands and environments to visit makes this seafaring journey seem epic in scale.  The game uses its cartoon visuals to reinforce a storybook aesthetic, providing the player with numerous colorful characters and scenarios with which to interact.

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Wind Waker did not make a great first impression on us in 2015.  An initially fun game filled with potential quickly gave way to one of the most frustrating moments in Laura and my collective gaming history.  But once we powered through this stealth-based slump, Wind Waker proved that its cartoon visuals and vast ocean journey have stood the test of time.  The vibrant and expressive characters were a delight to see, encouraging us to raise the sails and take to the seas for adventure.

Laura’s Thoughts

My time with Wind Waker can be summarized with the following:

GIMMGPWindWaker

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