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california extreme 2009
games Posted 2009-07-29 22:34:57 by Jim Crawford
California Extreme is a, um. The event's web page calls it “an annual celebration of coin operated pinball machines, video games and other novelties you once found in game arcades.” Well-put! It is very much a celebration.

Chris Kohler over at Wired described it like this: “California Extreme is like an urban legend. Once a year, the best video arcade in the world, packed full of every game you ever played as a child, plus games that were never released, magically appears somewhere in the Bay Area. Two days later, it disappears.”

But I like to think of it as a museum that you can visit in order to explore the history of arcade games. It's temporally limited, which sucks in some respects, but also allows it to display artifacts that would be inaccessible to a permanent museum, such as the one-of-a-kind prototype cabinets donated from personal collections.

I went with Louis this year, and a great time was had by all. Both. Some observations, loosely organized by game:

. . .

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retro game challenge; sonic's ultimate genesis collection
games Posted 2009-02-19 18:24:41 by Jim Crawford
Retro Game Challenge, a.k.a. Game Center CX, is a Nintendo DS anthology of eight NES-era games that never existed. It's a spin-off of the Japanese TV show, in which Shinya Arino, each episode, spends a day trying to beat an old, difficult game. He's not very good and gets frustrated easily. The show is in its 10th season.

In the game, Arino channels his frustrations into digitizing himself and sending you back in time to his childhood. He forces you to meet certain achievement-style challenges by playing old games in his collection.

. . .

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lucky juju's pinball museum
games Posted 2009-02-03 18:13:17 by Jim Crawford
On Saturday I went to Lucky Juju's Pinball Museum in Alameda with Casey. Was pretty fascinating, seeing the evolution from games of pure chance -- though optimized for drama and emotional payoff, like modern games still are -- through games with tiny, anemic flippers that give the players some minimal degree of control, to games where skill is a large factor.

It was also interesting to see what tricks pinball designers pulled out of their hats after they had to start competing with video games. The simplest one was going from four digit scores in the 1960s to nine digit scores in the 1990s, and of course there were game design advances like ramps and multiball, but I'm mostly thinking of gimmicks like the one Orbitor 1 is based around: it has a curved playfield and magnetic bumpers that impart the ball with highly erratic motion. Another good one was when Bram Stoker's Dracula grabbed the ball with a magnet hidden inside the cabinet and made it wobble across the playfield.

While I was there I picked up a brochure for Musee Mecanique in Fisherman's Wharf, which seems to be a more general version of the same idea: coin-operated mechanical entertainment through the ages, like mechanically animated dioramas and automated musical instruments. I'm looking forward to checking that place out as well.
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know your limits
games Posted 2008-12-24 03:22:06 by Jim Crawford
Imagine that the film industry started out by making only porn. And imagine that they never moved on from it. Ambitious pornographers would put astounding, literate, nuanced story-lines into their porn films, marveling at the unique storytelling power of their medium, compared to books and comics. When porn consumers watched that porn, they'd claim that finally, here is unassailable proof that porn is truly art, and wonder why the mainstream doesn't take porn seriously as an art form. Other porn consumers would wonder why anyone gives a fuck whether porn is art and remind everyone that porn doesn't even need a story to be great.

Whenever one of these groundbreaking porn titles was released, even porn consumers with no interest in the particular fetish the title served would watch it anyways, just for the story, wishing they could skip the sex scenes. Maybe they'd post on porn message boards, asking whether there have to be any sex scenes at all. And other forum posters would respond with such retorts as “Of course it has to have sex scenes. It's porn!” Well, when you put it that way...

Maybe at some point along this timeline, a crazy pornographer creates one of these groundbreaking porn films. It features top-tier writing, directing, acting, cinematography and editing, but happens to have no sex scenes at all. He'd quickly discover why nobody does this: porn culture doesn't know what to do with it. The title would get critically slammed: “Great storytelling and atmosphere I guess, but it didn't get my rocks off at all! Three out of ten.” Nobody would buy it. Those porn aficionados I mentioned above, the ones who watch porn that's not of their particular fetish, are a tiny fraction of the porn-buying demographic. And the mainstream, the ones who would note the absence of extended sex scenes as a benefit? They wouldn't be caught dead with a porn playing machine in their living room in the first place.

Historical science fiction authors should take a break from writing Nazis-Won-WWII alternate universe stories and write that one.
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banjo-kazooie
games Posted 2008-12-10 05:32:39 by Jim Crawford
Wow. I'd forgotten how ambitious Click Clock Wood was. Maybe I was just callow and unobservant in 1998.

Most levels in Banjo-Kazooie are basically just themed obstacle courses -- the same can be said of any of the direct descendants of Super Mario 64 -- but Click Clock Wood goes a bit further. It takes place over four seasons; you can travel between them freely, but they represent a timeline. Playing through these seasons, you're asked to help various woodland critters through difficult periods in their lives. There's the squirrel who didn't save enough for the winter. There's the beaver who can't get into his house. If you move on to the next season without giving them the help they need, they ... don't appear in that season.

There's also the flower that you nurture through autumn that inevitably dies in the winter no matter what you do.

Most affective, probably, is the eaglet that you hatch and feed; by winter, you play the role of the proud parent and watch him fly majestically out of the nest for the first time.

Well, not so majestically. He's lopsided and ungainly, and he farts a jigsaw puzzle piece onto you as he leaves. Still.

All of this is done through really basic gameplay mechanics of course, but dealing with the life cycle, dealing with action and consequence, including the consequence of inaction, is pretty heady stuff for a child.

I'm accustomed to thinking of Nintendo-era Rare as hard workers, producing games with a high degree of polish but that are not particularly inspired. This, this one level, is inspired.

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other people playing far cry 2
games Posted 2008-10-26 14:23:26 by Jim Crawford
I loaned my Xbox 360 to Megan's brother Ryan over Saturday for some sort of Far Cry 2 event. He scrounged up eight 360s, seven TVs and one LCD monitor from various sources, presumably for some massive system link action. Later I found out that it was a Far Cry 2 launch party, hosted by Ubisoft. Ubisoft can't provide its own hardware?

As Ryan was making arrangements to return my 360, he mentioned that Ubisoft was giving out goodie bags to the people who provided the hardware. Cool. But when he showed up at my door he shamefully explained that, as it turned out, “goodie bag” just meant “bag.” I liked it better when I was doing this out of the goodness of my heart rather than whoring myself out for a corporate branded tote bag.

I do also have the Far Cry 2 achievement points that someone random earned for me, though. The people at that party must've been logged in as the default Gamertag of the system they happened to walk up to. In my imagination, none of these these players knew each other, so they referred to each other by Gamertag as they yelled strategies around the room. These people would surely become fast friends, and their respective Gamertags would become permanent nicknames in memory of how they'd met. One of these people -- hopefully the only girl in the group -- would be known as “Jim Crawford” for the rest of her natural life.

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braid
games Posted 2008-08-10 19:47:11 by Jim Crawford
Braid is a puzzle platformer that indie developer Jonathan Blow has been working on for the past three years. He's been fairly notoriously outspoken of late about the ethics of game design. For instance, he believes it unethical for a game to reward the player for accomplishing something trivial, because it amounts to rewarding the player for continuing to play the game. Getting a rare drop in an MMORPG clearly qualifies, but so does something as simple as the pleasant ding and score boost you get for picking up a coin in Super Mario Bros. He makes an analogy comparing this kind of gameplay to “drugs,” contrasting it with “food” gameplay, in which the gamer is rewarded for learning or improving a skill set.

. . .

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knytt stories
games Posted 2008-02-28 19:31:37 by Jim Crawford
Knytt Stories, by Nifflas, is clearly inspired by Seiklus. This is evident in the minimal and minimally-hazardous world design, and the focus on exploring sparsely beautiful environments rather than overcoming obstacles. It works really well; Knytt Stories is one of the most beautiful works of art I've experienced, with wonderfully evocative visuals and gorgeous ambient music that, paradoxically, you notice, due to the world design being paced to allow the mood to soak in.

But one thing Nifflas doesn't get about Seiklus, or chooses not to duplicate, is the lack of text. Seiklus took a cue from Ico here, and possibly Another World. Ico seems to have stumbled on that aspect of the aesthetic accidentally, since some versions of Ico provide subtitles for the made-up language the characters speak -- though just now, I see that Fumito Ueda cites Another World as one of his inspirations for Ico. That's interesting.

Nifflas, unfortunately, bookends his games with heavy-handed, poorly-written stories about saving the world, seeming not to realize that they'd be much stronger without text, or even without any context at all. The game flow and visuals and music provide a complete narrative experience already.

I wish the writing were better, not just because I like good writing, but so I could say whether even a well-written story could have the austere, childlike beauty that Seiklus and Ico have, and that Knytt Stories would have if you closed your eyes while clicking through the opening and closing cut-scenes. But I think that language is, itself, too sophisticated.
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no more heroes
games Posted 2008-02-05 20:49:06 by Jim Crawford
No More Heroes experience is something of a two-faced, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. One face is a fast-paced, incredibly ornate brawler festooned with references to anime and gaming culture. The game part is never actually that fun, but it's relentlessly entertaining.

The other face is ... a satire of Grand Theft Auto's design mindset, maybe.

. . .

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super mario galaxy
games Posted 2007-11-13 14:30:33 by Jim Crawford
I bought Super Mario Galaxy yesterday and played with Matt and Indy for about 6 hours, passing the controllers around periodically. We ended up with about 30 stars, out of the 120 total. There's an odd little co-op mode, in which the second player controls an onscreen cursor that can collect and shoot gems, and stun enemies. We all enjoyed both modes, but being player 2 is not so much playing as a more engaging way to watch somebody else play. I know people who can't stand to watch somebody else play a video game, and I suspect these people won't enjoy being player 2 either.

That's not really what I'm here to talk about, though. I'm here to talk about how Super Mario Galaxy is not the true followup to Super Mario 64.

. . .

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