The Curse of CONTENT

Man, 2018 was quite a year for games, wasn’t it? Of course, it felt like everything amazing got overshadowed by The Cowboy Game coming out at the tail end of the year. You know, the game where if you dare to say anything slightly negative about it, a horde of people was come in and shit up your comments and Twitter mentions.

I mean, clearly the game is amazing, right? After all, no other game this year had as much CONTENT as Cowboy Game. A huge, explorable world! Numerous player and NPC interactions! Realistic horse testicles that some poor graphics rigger in crunch time likely had to miss his daughter’s birthday party to create!

But it’s like… whenever I hear someone I know talk about Cowboy Game, they never seem to be having that much fun with it. They want to play it because it’s the current gaming zeitgeist, but when they talk about doing stuff in the game, it’s never with the sort of excited fervor you hear when someone is describing something they are really, truly passionate about. It just feels like they’re experiencing The Game With the Most CONTENT because that’s what you’re supposed to do unless you want your gamer cred to be shot. Sometimes I wonder if all the vocal fans are genuinely enjoying that game, or convincing themselves that they are (and posting incessantly about it) because they feel like they have to.

CONTENT, in all caps, is what I think of when you’ve got a game that just has a lot of stuff in it for no reason other than to make the game bigger, longer, more epic!!!1! Open world games are often the ones that feel the most CONTENT bloat, but they’re certainly not the only ones: we’ve all played a JRPG that went way overboard with the sidequests, an action game with levels that are pure padding, and tacked-on systems like crafting, levelling, and skill trees in games that don’t really need them. CONTENT is, theoretically, supposed to keep you engaged, but often does the opposite: it wears you down, leaves you longing to get back to the fun parts, and can even make you feel spiteful towards a game for wasting your time with unsatisfying, superfluous empty bullshit.

So folks, let’s talk a bit about CONTENT, why it’s present in games, and how games can be better about giving the player a lot of stuff.

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Adventures in Doujin Land: How I Self-Published a Book About an Incredibly Obscure Video Game at a Japanese Convention (and so can you!)

It’s been quiet here lately, I’m afraid. It’s due to a combination of things: one is that I have been having some health issues as of late. Nothing too serious, thankfully, but still enough to put a dent in my activity. I have some surgery scheduled for early December so it should be taken care of soon.

The other thing that’s been eating up my time, if you’ve paid attention to my Twitter or Patreon feeds, is that I published a book. A doujinshi, to be precise.

Yes, I finally turned my decades-long dream of doujin publishing into a reality! Some people want to write gaming books to sell on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, but me? I want to sell directly to my core audience: the hugest nerds on Planet Earth who absolutely love obscure stuff, and that’s exactly what Japan’s doujinshi scene offers. If you can dream it, you can sell it.

But how did this go from pipe-dream to reality? Well, it was a long and interesting journey, that’s for sure. But I know I’m not the only Westerner with Japanese doujin dreams, so I’d like to share my adventure so that others may learn from it and embark on their own self-publishing endeavors.

Part 1: Getting the idea off the ground

Part 2: Printing a book overseas (Coming soon!)

Part 3: The Game Legend experience

Every Classic Sonic Special Stage, reviewed

Hey, I reviewed Sonic Mania Plus recently! Some people seemed to take issue with the fact that I said the new content was a bit of a letdown — which I think more people might be inclined to agree with now that the game’s out. I mean, the team had the opportunity to put the Love Tester back into Studiopolis and they didn’t. I had to dock a point immediately right there. (It’s a joke, people.)

But some folks seemed unusually incensed that I said the special stages were bad. I don’t know why this point in particular seemed to get folks all in a huff, because… well, yeah, Sonic Mania special stages are pretty miserable. They’re absolutely the weak link in an otherwise spectacular game, and having to play more of them was not a fun prospect, made worse by the fact that the special stage rings are still a royal pain in the ass to find (and farm in postgame).

Here’s the thing, though. I’ve played a lot of classic Sonic. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time in these games’ special stages. I think I have a pretty damn good idea of what makes for a fun Sonic special stage. And, my friends, Sonic Mania’s special stages are absolutely not fun, especially in comparison to some of the other great special stages Sonic has offered us.

So, readers, I would like to once again present you with a painstakingly compiled list of mini-reviews. This time, we’re not reviewing games, but games within games. We’re going to be looking at all of the classic Sonic series special stages1 and evaluating each type… and maybe tell a fun story or two of youthful obsession.

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  1. Except the SMS/Game Gear stuff. Those games aren’t very good, I didn’t own a Game Gear/SMS, and I don’t care.

Konami versus the fans of Tokimeki Memorial: A Legal History

Hey, did you hear about the PUBG vs Fortnite legal case getting withdrawn? Boy, that thing was a complete disaster, huh? But ours is an industry filled with legal shenanigans… many of which, like Capcom v. Data East, Silicon Knights v. Epic, and now this, have ended disastrously for the plaintiffs.

However, it’s not always like this. We only really see these cases from a Western perspective — and, indeed, many of the most important legal cases in gaming, like the infamous Tetris debacle, were decided in US court. But there have also been plenty of legal issues surrounding games in Japan — see the recent spate of game bar closures — and one Japanese company is quite notorious for its use of litigation.

Long before #FucKonami was a trending hashtag, long before Western music game fans and developers cowered in fear of Konami’s legal threats, there were incidents in Japan involving one of Konami’s most popular (at the time) game franchises. These incidents earned Konami a great deal of notoriety among game fans in Japan as a litigation-happy tiger of a company that would happily devour its own fanbase. Somehow, though, these stories never drifted overseas, likely because the game involved was seen by the west as “some weird Japanese dating sim thing” that was of little interest or importance.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to take a look at Konami’s legal actions against one of its most fervent fanbases. Let’s examine Konami’s legal battle against Tokimeki Memorial fandom.

Before we start, perhaps it’s best to talk a bit about what Tokimeki Memorial (frequently abbreviated as Tokimemo) was, and why it was such a big deal.

Tokimemo is considered to be one of the defining “Gal-ge,” or games centered around fostering and nuturing a relationship with one of several eligible virtual women. In this game, you play as a high school boy going through the school year, meeting various girls and finding one you eventually want to win over. By paying attention to the girl’s likes and what she wants in a partner, you budget your time and raise stats to become more appealing. You also have to make sure not to annoy any of the other girls, because they’re catty bitches who will spread damaging rumors about you. Eventually, you’ll reach the end of the school year, where one of the girls — hopefully, the one you were aiming for — confesses her love for you under the tree of legend.

(If you want a slightly more in-depth and fun look at the gameplay, I’d highly recommend the Game Center CX episode centered around the game.)

Tokimeki Memorial did well when it debuted on the PC Engine CD in 1994, but it was the eventual enhanced ports to PlayStation and Saturn that really made the game blow up in popularity. Shiori Fujisaki, the pink-haired girl-next-door archetype on the PS and Saturn covers, became an instantly recognizable face across all of gaming. Konami had a huge hit on their hands, and merchandised the everloving hell out of it: to this day, you can wander into any Japanese secondhand stuff store and likely find various Tokimemo knickknacks.

Of course, with a hit game comes sequels and spinoffs, and they were numerous. The first sequel, Tokimeki Memorial 2, was a huge game spread across five CDs, and is widely considered the best in the franchise in terms of gameplay and presentation… yet it didn’t stick around in gamers’ hearts like the first game did. A disastrous move to 3D visuals on PS3 with Tokimemo 3 upset many, and Konami opted to focus instead on the growing otome market with Tokimeki Memorial Girls’ Side, which had you playing as a girl trying to impress a bevy of hot dudes. The last Tokimeki Memorial game, Tokimeki Memorial 4, released on PSP in 2009, and its very existence seemed like a surprise to many.

(A fun fact shared to me by my late friend Andrew Fitch — who formerly worked at Konami’s US branch — was that the weird PSP game Brooktown High was meant as a testbed to see if an “American Tokimemo” would work. We miss you, Andrew.)

Since then, Konami hasn’t done much with the series, aside from putting out the occasional bit of Girls’ Side content. Love Plus on the 3DS was seen by many as an evolution of the game’s concepts, though Konami basically destroyed that series as well. Currently, there’s a game called “Tokimeki Idol” on smartphones that looks like a really bad attempt to cash in on the Idolm@ster/Love Live! wave by using scraps of an old IP. The decline of Tokimemo itself is worthy of its own article, as it’s due to a variety of factors, but one thing that may have played a part was Konami’s antagonism of its own fanbase through legal means. Such as… Continue reading

Astonishingly Awful Gaming Merchandise: Consumerism is Scary Edition

Happy Halloween, everyone! But considering the world we’re living in is an apocalyptic hellscape, it’s like every day brings us fresh, Halloween-like horrors!

…Okay, that’s a little too negative for this site about gaming love. After all, no matter what happens, we’ll always have positive gaming experiences and the friendships and bonds they help create to get us through things. I got a firsthand glimpse of this at the recent Portland Retrogaming Expo, a yearly convention that celebrates the rich history of gaming. It was a fantastic show, filled with arcade games, classic consoles and games, an interesting variety of vendors, some great panels, and museum exhibits that included unreleased NES games and the Sony Playstation Super NES CD. The show was great, the people were great, everyone was happy, and good times were had all around.

Of course, a lot of the vendors were selling old games and consoles, and I’ve come to realize I’m almost completely over my game-collecting phase: with so much making the transition to digital, I’m more inclined to collect things where physicality is more important. Most of what I bought at the show was game-related merchandise, books, and crafts from local artists — I didn’t acquire any actual games. Not to hate on people who do collect games: I just find collecting things related to games more interesting in general than owning a whole roomful of titles for every console under the sun. (I’m more about acquiring and holding onto the games that really mean a lot to me.)

There was no shortage of merchandise at PRGE. Lots of cool stuff could be had from a variety of sellers, but I also saw a lot of random crap that left me scratching my head, pondering why it even existed. Do companies really believe we, as fans, are so lacking in taste that we’ll buy anything with a familiar game character on it, no matter how ugly or devoid of value? Well, um… yes. And the fact that this crap keeps getting made is proof that someone — many someones, in fact — are falling for it.

So today, on this most frightening of days, we’re going to be looking at some of the worst pieces of gaming-related merchandise out there. Truly spooooooky!

I didn’t want to make this too easy for myself, though, so I put some rules down for this feature.

  • No T-shirts. As painfully terrible as many gaming T-shirts are, I already ranted about them at length.
  • It has to be at least somewhat retro-flavored. There’s some really bad Fallout merch, I know,  but I’d like to keep this more focused on the commercial exploitation of nostalgia.
  • No Funko POPs. Fish, barrel, you know how it goes.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some merchandise that’s so bad, it’s scaaaaaaaary! (…okay, I’ll stop)

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The Problems with Metroid: Samus Returns

Boy, people sure do love some Metroid, huh?

Samus Returns was one of E3’s biggest surprises, though I certainly had trepidation when I learned that MercurySteam was the developer. They’re a bunch of passionate guys, obviously, but I’ve found their previous games (the best-known of which are the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sub-series) to be… lacking, to put it simply. I tried to keep a little bit optimistic, saying “They must have made a hell of a pitch for Nintendo to give them the keys to a Metroid game.”

And then Samus Returns released. And it was… good, actually! Pretty darn solid. It’s got some cool map design, the atmosphere is great, and there’s some neat puzzle design. If I gave it a numerical score, it’d be a nice seven-out-of-ten. That means it’s quite good!

… but it’s still not the rave-fueled 9s and 10s I’ve seen handed out to the game. Honestly, I find those a bit of a head-scratcher, because while Samus Returns is good, it has problems. Some really big problems, even. And I didn’t see anyone really touching on them, either. I can understand the elation of finally getting a 2D Metroid again after so long, but Samus Returns isn’t perfect by a long shot.

Thankfully, on this wonderful web site o’ mine, I can eschew the standard review format and dive straight into everything that grinds my gears about Samus Returns. To be fair, some of these problems were also present in the original Metroid II: Return of Samus — but shouldn’t a remake try its best to fix some of that? I also haven’t played AM2R, so there won’t be any comparisons on that front. It’s just me, you readers, and a whole lot of nitpicking from someone who’s not a Metroid die-hard but loves this sort of game. So let’s jump right in…

(I wanted to get screencaps to better illustrate some of my points here, but the whole Miiverse work-around to get 3DS screens is a ginormous pain in the butt, so I eventually had to abandon the idea. So, this article’s going to be all-text. My apologies!)

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The difficult, unending hunt for good gaming T-shirts

I don’t think of myself as a particularly fashionable person. I’m completely out of the loop when it comes to “mainstream” fashion trends, and my knowledge of high fashion is limited to the supporting cast of Jojo Part 6. Even a lot of counter-culture fashion goes right over my head: I just don’t see the appeal.

But there’s one article of clothing I genuinely love: T-shirts! I have a closet and a dresser full of various tees in a rainbow of colors, all emblazoned with printed imagery. I’m never wanting for something nice to wear on my torso.

In the past couple decades, the image of a T-shirt as something cheap and lazy to toss on when you don’t want to wear your good or even your “business casual” clothes has begun to change, thanks in part to designers who have taken the idea of a printed image on a shirt to new artistic heights. It’s great for us nerdy types: there’s a wealth of tees out there that let us express our passions and interests to the world at large — and T-shirts are typically more affordable than most other types of fashion, which means we can enjoy them without breaking the bank too much.

There’s still one big problem though: A lot of nerdy T-shirts are terrible. And this goes doubly for gaming T-shirts. Many widely available gaming tees offer up a level of cringeyness that few other poorly-conceived tees can even hope to match.

I don’t think it’s possible to see this and not immediately want to punch the person wearing it

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Inexplicably memorable EGM ads of the early-mid 90s (Part one)

The first non-Nintendo Power game magazine I subscribed to was Electronic Gaming Monthly. I was never a GamePro fan, Game Players had atrocious layouts until about 1995, and Gamefan didn’t get distribution in my neck of the woods until around 1995ish, so EGM was the go-to multiplatform magazine I’d buy on newsstands and take to school with me to read with classmates. Eventually, I convinced my parents to get me a subscription for Christmas of 1992.

Let me tell you, being an EGM subscriber in 1993 was an amazing thing. Every month, you’d get this humongous catalog-sized magazine dropped off in your mailbox, filled with screens and info on games for every platform under the sun, along with all the juicy details on the still-far-off 32-bit revolution and the vaporware SNES CD. Yes, the screenshots were generally terrible — I’m pretty sure their initial Mortal Kombat 2 screens were taken with a Polaroid and scanned in — but we all loved them regardless.

But with those gigantic issues came ads. Loads and loads of ads. For many games and peripherals, magazine ads were the best way to get the word out — TV ads were expensive, and they knew there were plenty of kids like me taking their magazines to read at recess with everyone else, so a national magazine ad purchase was an extremely smart buy.

Every so often, I pop onto archive.org’s collection of game magazines and go looking for old ads that I remembered. I’m still utterly mystified by what my brain has chosen to retain memories of, as some of the ads I remember very clearly are, in retrospect, not the sort of things that would likely worm their way into an easily impressionable pre-teen brain.

I want to share some of these with you, readers. They’re not the best ads of the era, nor are they the worst. But somehow, in EGM issues packed to the gills with screaming neon 90s ads that didn’t garner a second thought from me, they left such a lasting impression that I can still recall them.

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Nostalgia for sale: What you’re actually buying

I’ve been attending a few events over the past couple of months (thanks, in no small part, to the gracious support of fans and readers). While at shows like PAX East and GDC, I’ve had a chance to play quite a few in-development titles, big and small, that were banking heavily on nostalgia appeal. While it’s a good idea to reserve full judgement of a game until it’s in your hands as a full-fledged product — after all, a lot can happen over the course of development — there were quite a few not-particularly-great games I tried that were attempting — and failing — to capture the spirit of the retro games that inspired them.

Originally, I had a big feature written up called “This Is Why Your Retro-Inspired Game Sucks,” where I went into great detail about some of the more egregious flaws I saw across several games. I didn’t name any titles specifically, of course — that would be just rude. Ultimately, though, I scrapped it: the tone of the piece sounded combatitive and assholish, and while I’m certainly opinionated at times, I didn’t want to come off as a jerk when all I really wanted to do was point out why these games weren’t coming together as the people making them intended. It’s pretty hard being an indie dev already, y’know?

But with the crash and burn of Mighty No. 9 and the less vitriolic but noticeably tepid response to Yooka-Laylee, two of the most prolific crowdfunded “retro revival” games yet made, I feel like we should discuss why a lot of retro revivals seemingly fail to hit the mark once they’re in our hands. There are a lot of reasons, but ultimately, they can be summarized by saying:

What you think you want is a game made to the exact standards of the retro titles you cherish. But what you actually want — and don’t realize you want — is the feeling those games gave you when you encountered them for the first time.

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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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