Sunday, August 28, 2011

emotional distress

i'm extremely disappointed right now.

the envelope containing my badge for the one day of PAX i was able to sign up for this year is nowhere to be found in my apartment. this could very well be because it is at the bottom of some random, anonymous, possibly sealed box either in my office or in my closet. considering there is not much else to go through at this point, i'd say that i've looked through just about every other possible place it could be. "bummed" would be an understatement for how i'm feeling about this right now.

most of my stuff is packed up in boxes. why? because $1000 is a bit much for me to pay for rent every month at the moment - not without a steady job that pays at least that much and still allows me at least 40 hours per week to work on games and neocade. (if this is not possible, there really is no point in living, ergo working). but rather than just close up shop, call it a day, and see how many graveyard shift convenience store jobs i can get, i'm going to stick with neocade. which means i still get to work on making games and getting better at making games and thus making better games, but it does mean that i do have to find cheaper living arrangements (i.e. with my parents). fortunately, neocade is still just me right now, so luckily this part is only complicated by the shameful fact that, yes, i will be living with old people for a bit. and at the moment things are really really hectic as we move through the logistics of getting all my crap out of this place and cleaning it up sufficiently.

so now i sit, drained, in my (still set up) office area. if i find this envelope with the badge in it within the next hour or two, the very next words out of my mouth will be "i'm going to pax, dad, see ya later". otherwise, i'm just in this quiet, slightly submissive, mopey state of organizing things so that they will fit nicely into boxes and hold together for a couple thousand miles. sitting down is a bit of a luxury right now (writing blog posts, doubly so) - maybe i'm just trying to find some enjoyment in the moment.

as much as i do see this as a beginning and not an end, i feel that i'm leaving a place that has made me happy for the past six years, that i won't have seattle outside my front door every day, and on top of that, missing the biggest gathering of gamers there is, which i had been going to every year since 2006, and had been planning to go to this year just before having to leave.(even extending out my stay as much as possible just to be able to go). and now i can't go because the envelope, which i probably set aside because i knew what was in there, got misplaced somehow. i feel this burning desire now to book tickets and travek to both PAX east and PAX prime next year, for all three days, the minute each becomes available for registration. yeah, that'll show fate who's boss.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mega Man 2

Quite possibly the greatest example of an NES game produced outside of Nintendo's own R&D labs (a few other 3rd party games spring to mind as well, but this one holds a special place in my heart). Mega Man 2 featured eight stages which can be played in any order, each of which altered the way you could play each subsequent stage you'd select. These were followed by a more traditionally linear set of five stages, one after the other in a set order, which topped almost anything in the first eight stages in terms of challenge, and required certain power-ups in some places, which meant that every shot made with these had to be rationed over multiple stages. Every stage in the game was a themed excursion through a manga-style cartoon robot world running around and jumping and shooting at things and making them blow up. You were, in a very real sense, doing what you'd only be watching on a Saturday morning cartoon - and on any day of the week. For a NES game of its time, the graphics and sound were pretty darn impressive.

Every stage in Mega Man 2 was, like every Mega Man game, hard, even on the watered-down "normal" difficulty that was put in for us lesser-skilled Americans. (considering the tendency of many early NES games to be ridiculously unforgiving and difficult in general, probably not a bad move) Maybe they're not so hard now to some folks, if only because we've played through them zillions of times. Or we knew about some optimal path through the game which essentially made it a relatively easy but just as enjoyable linear set of stages to be progressed through one after the other. Or we had the relevant issues of Nintendo Power at our disposal. Or we were able to consult with the oracles at the Nintendo Game Counselor hotline without getting into too much trouble when the next phone bill arrived in the mail. Or we had friends who had already beaten the game and weren't too much of a dick about it.

At any rate, the high concept of this game is simply genius, as evidenced by its subsequent rehashing-to-death by Capcom in Mega Mans 3,4,5,6,7,8,9, and 10. And also a few outside attempts at clones/variations, such as 8 Eyes. One aspect to this design is that you really could play through the game in any order, because the stages could all, at least with some skill, be played through as the first stage, without any extra power-ups. Getting the power-ups makes them all easier in different ways, and this is in turn makes the game more enjoyable.

And those last few stages in Dr. Wily's castle? They address a common flaw I find in many sandbox-style games where the player gets progressively too powerful over time and just starts rolling over everything by the end - which can be fun for a while, but can also really detract from the game's replayability on the whole. While there is a sense of "yeah, take that you bastards" in these games, in subsequent play-throughs it just becomes less of a challenge - you've more or less beaten the game at that point and are just mopping up, so to speak. Every trip through Dr. Wily's castle is equally challenging because the game is set up that way. It knows that by that point you've got everything and so it "goes Castlevania" on you a bit and falls back on a more linear level structure and also breaks out the harder level elements that couldn't be included in the earlier stages, which each have to be beatable without any power-ups.

Even now, over 20 years later, it's still an enjoyable game to pop in, play a level or two, and then just leave the level select screen on in the background and go do something else. It's a game that can be played in 5-10 minute spurts, much like a casual game. It really is a core game at heart, though, and has been known to result in hour+ marathons of playing the game through beginning to end. It is one of those rare labors of love combined balanced with a very professional treatment; and that, I'd say, was a key factor in its longevity and legacy.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

the old arcade on the hill

When I was little, I lived in West Caldwell, New Jersey, and there was this arcade just outside of town - I think it was called Game Town - I don't remember exactly. It was up on this hill and you could see it every time you'd drive from town over to Route 46, which my family would do every now and then because that was the first leg of the route to my grandparents' house. I hardly ever went there.

What I do remember of the place, though, it was like this temple of video gaming, a beacon up there you could go inside and tour these rows of glowing monitors and joysticks and big, brightly-colored, plastic concave buttons. Simply awe-inspiring, especially to a 6- or 7-year old kid with a penchant for befriending kids with an NES or Atari so we could trade games with each other. You have to understand this was in the late 1980s. The proverbial "golden age" had already passed, and this was one of the last vestiges of that bygone era. There were still plenty of good arcade games to be played, though. Sega had risen to dominance and was now kicking some serious ass with their 16-bit games, many of which would eventually find their way onto the Genesis.

We moved away from New Jersey in 1990 for various reasons, and I never saw the place again. By the time I had come back to visit almost a decade later, the place had closed down. Running all those arcade monitors at the same time can sure run up an electric bill. And if everyone is just as happy sitting at home playing their N64, Playstation, or Dreamcast, what's the point of driving out to this place to pay upwards of $1 per play?

Oh, did I mention those big arcade monitors can kill you or implode if not handled properly? The award-winning indie rock group Arcade Fire is actually named because of an arcade they knew of had heard of (fictitious, according to a band quote on Wikipedia) that actually caught fire, presumably from all this high-powered electrical equipment that has to be crammed into a single room, left on all day, and used by lots of random strangers. Can't say I'mI'd be entirely surprised.

Still, there's this somewhat romantic sense of community that got lost in all of that. In college, we would recreate that a little bit by congregating into various dorm rooms where someone would have an N64 and Goldeneye and Mario Kart 64 or Playstation and Madden NFL or Tony Hawk Pro Skater in another. Game consoles were a great way to keep people coming over to your room, if that's what you wanted. You'd have that and as long as you were at least fairly social, you could have a BYO party pretty much whenever you wanted to, because the sound of skateboards, go karts, grenade launchers, and football along with seemingly-random, loud swearing inside a college dorm building can only mean one thing. And the RAs couldn't bust you just for playing video games. Unless it was 3AM on a Tuesday, at least.

Then we all graduated, got married, got jobs, had kids, etc.

Well, most of us, anyway.

I was never very suave with the ladies in school, so I can't count myself among the married/with kids population, or even among the busy-gettin-busy population. And the whole career thing only lasted for as long as I continued to abide by the corporate line of a very large software company with little actual interest in open platforms. When that ended, I found myself back at square one, pondering the number 42. Pondering the old arcade on the hill.