NieR Automata and the risk of pissing players off

If you haven’t heard by now, NieR Automata is unbelievably good. Like, easy Game of the Year tier good. Hell, it’s probably in my top games of all time at this point. It’s nice to have a Yoko Taro game that you don’t have to recommend with any reservations about things like “sluggish, repetitive combat” or “framerates that sometimes dip into the single digits,” and for that I owe Platinum Games gratitude.

I remember hearing concerns back when this game was first announced, though. By this point, Yoko Taro’s games had become known for having a degree of jankiness to them. Some fans were worried: would having a top-tier developer like Platinum onboard strip NieR Automata of some of the “charm” of previous games? Now that the final product is in our hands, we can see that, thankfully, the answer is mostly “no” for one big reason — Yoko Taro is one of the few figures working on the game industry who is daring enough to actually piss players off.

See, one of the big problems I have with most big-budget AAA titles is that they constantly play it super-duper safe: familiar gameplay and story tropes, overused character archetypes, mandatory tutorials up the wazoo to make sure you never struggle at all. Everything from character designs to control schemes to cover art has been focus-tested and run through EEDAR analytics to appeal to the widest group of potential game players possible. Nothing is allowed to turn off a particular segment of the player population, because these games cost absurd amounts of money make, and if it doesn’t sell several million globally then the entire dev team gets shut down tomorrow, so make that quest-giving lady more attractive, tighten up the graphics on level 3, and no you can’t give that boss a 90% damage attack even if it is heavily choreographed, are you NUTS?

As a result, we’ve wound up with a huge slate of really technically impressive, incredibly polished games that are somehow profoundly bland to actually experience. Much like Hollywood blockbusters, they are designed from the ground up for mass appeal, taking care not to do anything deemed too radical in terms of story, world, or gameplay design. The biggest risk they might take is maybe offending screaming internet jerkwards by having gay NPCs. But doing something deliberate in-game that might make some people angry? Oh hell no, did you see what happened with Mass Effect 3? They weren’t even TRYING to upset people with that one, and look what happened!

But somehow, Yoko Taro has never gotten the memo that “pissing players off” might be a bad idea, and Square-Enix has just let him run with it. Now we have NieR Automata: a beautiful, polished game that’s packed full of high-grade action, phenomenal music, incredible storytelling, and emotional gut-punches… and some master tier trolling. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS UNDER THIS CUT!

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The Seriously Delayed 2016 Gaming.moe Waifu Awards: A Disaster (much like 2016)

2016, man. What the hell even happened?

Well, it’s time for us, once again, to attempt to look back on 2016 in gaming through the lens of the gaming.moe Waifu Awards. No, we’re not here to award actual waifus — rather, we’re here to take a look back on the year in gaming in a somewhat different light than just pointing out what had the best graphics or story or whatever.

The year was a disaster by the standards of most sane human beings, and honestly, it’s hard for me to write 2016 awards because it’s really challenging to look back at the year and see anything beyond a pile of flaming wreckage. Also, it has been declared by HeatStreet to be an Affront to True Gamers and Developers to write end-of-the-year awards that contain things like “humor” and “commentary” and aren’t just slobbering over high-scoring AAA releases, so presenting the Waifu Awards makes me a fundamentally terrible person.

why am I even writing if I can’t win the approval of heatstreet dot com :,(

Nevertheless, I am here to provide you all with my hot, cold, and lukewarm takes on gaming-related happenings of 2016, both well-publicized and obscure, complete with snarky commentary and taking people to task for doing stupid things. The awards honestly took me a while to write this time around — not as many happenings and trends really jumped out at me this year as they did last year, and the things that I did take note of were generally (and, fittingly, given the overall tone of 2016) trainwrecks, many of which had been written about at length here and elsewhere. There’s still plenty to commentate on, though!

Enough chatter, though. Let’s make an attempt to dig through the smouldering rubble of 2016 in hopes of squeezing precious drops of entertainment out of it!

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Masaya Nakamura Tribute: Namco arcade classics (that are just as important as Pac-Man)

With the passing of Masaya Nakamura, founder of Nakamura Amusement Machine Manufacturing Company — better known to everyone as Namco — we’ve lost a man who was a pioneer of the game industry in many ways. When Nakamura bought out Atari Japan’s flagging division back in the 70s (offering far more money than rival Sega), he was spurred to add video game development to the company’s core business of kiddie rides, prize games, and other electromechanical amusements. From there, Namco went on to become one of the Japanese game industry’s arcade powerhouses during the game center boom of the 80s. Their competition with the other heavyweights in the arcade arena at the time — Sega, Taito, and Konami — spurred an incredible era of arcade innovation that helped advance game hardware and game genres to amazing new heights.

But here’s the problem: A lot of people don’t know much about that beyond Pac-Man.

While Namco had a US branch during the 80s, it was mostly a licensing arm until quite late in the decade.1. Games that looked like they’d have strong global appeal were quickly snatched up by the likes of Bally/Midway and Atari, while many others languished as Japanese exclusives, never to be seen outside of the country until MAME and the Namco Museums came about.

As a result, we have plenty of memorials dedicated to Nakamura speaking of him as “The Father of Pac-Man” (a title that really should go to creator Toru Iwatani), treating his legacy as if Pac-Man was the only thing that really mattered. Even without taking into account more modern Namco hits like Tekken, Ridge Racer, and the Tales series, this reductive titling ignores numerous games he helped spearhead into existence that had a tremendous impact on the industry. Sadly, because these games didn’t see much attention in the West, many players don’t know how important they really are. I’ve decided to highlight three very important Namco arcade games here to show just how important Nakamura’s legacy is — there are plenty more examples, but these three titles embody what Namco meant to a generation of Japanese arcadegoers and game creators alike.

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  1. One of my biggest frustrations in studying arcade history is how poorly-documented a lot of dealing between US and Japanese companies during the 80s and early 90s are. Details like when Namco US started to sell their own cabinets are scarce. And furthermore, how did companies like Taito USA decide which games to sell themselves and which to sell out to Romstar?! ARGH

An overly elaborate and painstakingly detailed account of the events of Arcade Superplay Expo 2016

I first heard rumblings in some of the Discord channels I hang out in that Twitch was planning something interesting in the fall. It was going to be a charity marathon, but with a twist: a focus exclusively on arcade games, a segment of gaming that didn’t really get much exposure outside of a few select streamers and the occasional arcade game run at a GDQ. I received a message from Romscout, Symphony of the Night speedrun superstar and Twitch charity event manager. Was I interested in helping out the event in some way?

I swiftly answered. Yes, yes, a thousand times YES. Jeez, you had me from the words “arcade event!”

The idea was a 48-hour marathon to raise money for Save the Children, to be held in October. The event would have players showcasing both classic and newer arcade games, from Donkey Kong and Track and Field to things like Tetris the Grand Master, some modern pinball games, and Beatmania IIDX. I wanted to at least help promote the event and get the word out, but I wondered if there was anything I personally could run at the event…

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Oh, right. There was Raimais, a game I had spent a month writing a novella’s worth of text about. But despite having written extensively about it, I had yet to actually complete a single-credit clear (commonly referred to as a 1CC). There was a little over a month until the event. Could I manage to not only juggle work and site responsibilities, but also route the game and master a path that would take me to the end with as few deaths as possible?

It was a daunting proposition, but after proclaiming so much love towards this obscure little Taito game, I felt like I had to carry its torch at what came to be called Arcade Superplay Expo.

“Put me down for Raimais,” I told Romscout. From that point on, I was officially committed.

It definitely wasn’t an easy task: for the first week or two I was diligently making notes, drawing powerup locations and scribbling level notes in a small Ubisoft notebook I’d been given for being runner-up in PAX West Jeopardy. When Jed from our discord channel showed me a custom Raimais level viewer he had whipped up, I was floored and overjoyed. This was going to make the process so much easier!

Finally, after hours of diligent practice, I got my first Raimais 1CC a week before the event was set to start. Now I had to find a way to try and make it consistent for my run, which had been slotted in at a risky 3:20 AM PST timeslot in the schedule. (It was originally set for around 7 AM, but I felt it would be better to try and stay up late than attempt to wake up early.) The event was fast approaching, and I had a review of a big-name JRPG on my freelance plate at the same time. There was so much going on, so much to do… and I couldn’t have been more excited for what was to come.

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The Nintendo 3DS Streetpass Games, ranked from worst to best

As some of you may be aware, I recently attended PAX West to give a panel on kusoge. PAX, along with any other nerd convention in the country, is prime territory for racking up 3DS Streetpass hits. Nintendo, in a move that seemed extremely cognizant of this fact, put out four new purchasable Streetpass Plaza games just before the convention started. I eagerly grabbed them before I went on my whirlwind tour of Seattle and Portland, and spent time not fretting over every tiny detail of the panel and/or playing indie games going through the newest batch of Streetpass stuff.

Then I thought to myself, “Boy, there sure are bunch of these paid Streetpass games now! If you hadn’t bothered with them before, where would you even start? After all, some of them are super good, but others are really not worth time or money at all… I know! I should totally review all of the paid Streetpass stuff, because nobody else seems to be bothering with looking at these games beyond a surface level glance!”

So that’s exactly what I’m doing! I’ve ranked every paid 3DS game here from what I feel are worst to best, categorizing them in five different ranks. (Find Mii 1/2 and Puzzle Swap are excluded since they’re already part of the 3DS package, and technically, you can get either Market Crashers or Slot Car Rivals for free as well.) I tried to go a bit into why I ranked the games why I did, though if there’s not much to a game, I probably have a lot less to say about it than something with meatier mechanics.

DISCLAIMER: If you live someplace like rural North Dakota where you’re not getting Streetpasses regularly, then even the best of these games are tough to recommend. Them’s the breaks, sadly.

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Raimais (Taito, 1988)

(Updated 10-29-16)

Raimais is a special game to me.

A constant throughout my life is loving the hell out of games that few other folks seem to. No, I’m not talking about kusoge, here – I’m talking about games that are actually good, but which are unknown and unpopular. Case in point: my enduring love affair with Fighting Vipers 2.

That’s far from the only obscurity that really stokes the flames of burning game love within me, however. Over the years, I’ve come to have a deep appreciation for Taito’s late-80s and early-90s catalog, with a few titles in particular standing out as treasures that have gone most unrecognized by even devoted retro fans. But while one of my favorite unknown games, Night Striker, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity — well, on the Japan side, anyway — there’s another Taito title that wormed its way into my heart that remains mostly buried in Taito’s sprawling back catalog: Raimais.

Raimais, at first glance, doesn’t seem like the sort of game somebody would develop a deep affection for. It looks like a fairly standard-issue dot collection maze game  — a genre that had mostly fallen out of favor when the game hit in 1988 and seems even more dated now. But there’s a lot about this game that’s interesting, from how it aims to modernize one of the earliest gaming formulas to its rather unusual-for-the-time cutscenes and surprise ending… along with how its tendrils crept into another Taito title we’ve covered on this site. Not to mention its strange console offshoot…

Yeah, there’s a lot to cover here. So much, in fact, that I’ve actually had to separate this into several smaller pages. (Yes, the biggest article on gaming.moe so far is for a Taito obscurity that even Japanese players don’t discuss much. Is that really a surprise?) So, without further ado, let’s brave the labyrinth!

soghrika

Mspaint Rika and Organizer by Ant.

raimais_web

Art by Nina Matsumoto

Send me more Rika fanart! I’ll post it here!

Special Thanks to: Zekuu, Ant, Tom James, mauve

The Problems with EVO 2016 (and how it can do better next year)

As you are more than likely aware, EVO happened this month, and it was a pretty big deal! It was undoubtedly the biggest the event’s ever been, both in terms of attendance and presentation, with a split venue of the Las Vegas Convention Center on Friday and Saturday and the Mandalay Bay Event Center on Sunday. It was also the first time EVO was broadcast on national TV through ESPN2… well, the Street Fighter V part was, anyway. It was a weird transitional year, as EVO experiences the growing pains of wanting to both serve a grassroots fighting-game community, and dealing with the reality that… well, like it or not, the FGC is #esports now.

And, like any year of transition, there were issues. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time at EVO this year! I did a lot of work for Red Bull eSports that I’m really proud of (check out this KoF feature in particular), saw a lot of friends, and watches some really cool stuff go down. Of course, I also didn’t see certain friends for long enough, didn’t get to set up Fighting Vipers 2 and other obscure competitive games I like, and missed a few legendary matches for the ages. But that’s more personal gripes: this year’s EVO had some more pervasive issues that I heard a lot of folks grumbling about. I’d like to get some of those complaints off my chest here. (I know the folks at home had issues with some of the streams, as well, but since I didn’t see many of those until after the fact, I feel it’s better for me to address the issues with physically attending the event.)

As an FYI: This article’s gonna be rather picture-light, mainly because I’m not about to rip off TempusRob’s great pictures like so many others folks like to do. Go visit him if you want rad EVO photos, because we’re here to talk.

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Why I love short games

Summer Games Done Quick is a thing that’s happening right now, and I can’t help but find a bit of irony in the fact that, in the quest to be able complete games as quickly as possible, a lot of these runners have poured hundreds of hours into individual games. Many of these titles would be considered “short games,” things you’d wrap up nicely in a couple of hours with some adequate gaming skills if you were playing “casually.”1 Being short, however, is often considered a detriment to a game’s quality. Even with our massive backlogs of unplayed Steam Sale acquisitions and potentially ill-advised Amazon purchases Cheap Ass Gamer alerted us to, we still somehow view not getting a long game as a detriment.

But you know what? That way of thinking is wrong. Short games are friggin’ fantastic and I want more of them.

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  1. I kinda hate that “casual” in speedrunning lingo refers to “not playing for speed.” Under that logic, a crazy max-level all-skills-learned RPG run is “casual.” I don’t get it.

Crowdfunding and Expectations, Case file No. 9

As we’re all quite aware, the much-anticipated Mighty No. 9 released this week, and, well, it’s been kind of a mess. The review scores are middling, it’s been raked over the coals all across YouTube and Twitch streams, and everybody who thinks they can make a quick grab for nerd attention by hopping on the trainwreck du jour has been making half-assed (and sometimes shockingly misinformed) digs at the game since its release.

But here’s the thing: there’s a lot more to MN9’s problems than just some angry yellman screaming about how Keiji Inafune scammed people out of four million dollars. I’m not trying to say “you shouldn’t be let down by MN9,” because it’s not my right to police your personal feelings. But I do think it’s important that people understand that there’s a lot to take into account when thinking and talking about this game. There are countless valuable lessons to learn here: about how games are made (and why they sometimes don’t live up to expectations), of keeping hype in check, and why putting money up for anything sight-unseen is a risk you really need to consider carefully.

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Game Music Highlight: Salamander 2

I’ll be real here: I’m not a huge fan of most of Konami’s shooters, mainly because most of the stuff from the Gradius school of design punishes you harshly for any matter of mistake. I do, however, really like the Salamander/Life Force series, mainly because it doesn’t have those checkpoints placed strategically in the areas most impossible to clear when you’re powered down to nothing. (I also dig Gradius V for the same reasons.) Oh, and also because the soundtracks in them are amazing.

Gradius’s release in 1985 came at a time when sound hardware was beginning to evolve to a point where musicians could make songs that were far more musically complex than the 10-second loops ripped off of some public domain ditty. Konami was one of the leaders of this zeitgeist in the arcades alongside Namco, Sega, and Taito, and Gradius was among the first games that made people sit up and take notice of what game music could sound like. Hell, it was impressive from the point where you booted it up and waited for that bubble memory to heat up.

The musical legacy continued throughout the series and into its spin-offs, which brings us to Salamander 2, released in 1996. This was just a couple of years before Konami would begin releasing games like Beatmania and Dance Dance Revolution, and future Bemani maestro Naoki Maeda (along with arranger You Takamine) was already beginning to hone his craft in the game’s many uptempo, synth-heavy tunes. In fact, there’s one tune from Salamander 2 that I’m sure the VJ crowd knows very well, and it’s this one!

This song, “Sensation,” was remixed and later appeared in Keyboardmania 3rd Mix (and the PS2 home port, Keyboardmania II, which contains music from the arcade 2nd and 3rd Mix). This was not done by Maeda, but rather Shinji Hosoe, who has had a long and fruitful career in game music (and is one of the key figures behind game music label SuperSweep).

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like this particular remix. I know, I know, it’s sacrilege to say you don’t like a Shinji Hosoe song… or a piece of Bemani music. But something about it just feels off. Maybe it’s the different instrument samples sounding kinda weird, or maybe because it hits so many of my arranged game music pet peeves (“let’s cut out the backing instruments here, it’ll sound great!”).

But you know what? Sensation isn’t even my favorite Salamander 2 song. It’s this one, from later in the game:

It’s got that same fast tempo and heavy synth, but a very different mood to it: it feels more trepidatious, because now you’re further along in the game and shit has gotten real. If Sensation is all about “HELL YEAH LET’S KICK SOME MID-90S PRERENDERED CG ENEMY ASS,” Speed is like “Well crap, we’re really in this one for the long haul, aren’t we? Hope you’re ready.” There’s also a something kind of big and sweeping about it, especially when you hit that bridge of music before the track loops. Pretty great, if you ask me.

Naoki Maeda, like a lot of key Konami talent, is off doing other things these days: last I heard, he was at Capcom working on an arcade game called Crossbeats Rev. (I don’t remember even seeing this one on my last Japan trip, which leaves me a bit worried as to how it’s faring in the market.) Given that Konami’s keen to piss their valuable IPs away, it’s doubtful we’ll ever get any new music in this style… unless, of course, they make a Salamander pachislot. At least the sound could be nice, right?