Monthly Archives: November 2008

The Mystery of Sonic

How is Sonic even a factor in today’s game market anymore?

The furry blue bastard hasn’t had a good game in at least nine years, and that’s if you consider Sonic Adventure good, which is a slightly tenuous proposition.


But Sega keeps churning out the games like gunked-up, fugly clockwork anyway, which can only mean one thing: they’re still selling.

For the love of God, why?

Are old Sega fanboys that attached to their beloved hedgehog that they’ll buy anything with him in it without so much as a second thought?  Is it pure nostalgia and nothing else that keeps this wearied character going?

Somehow I doubt that particular explanation.  Most Sonic fans from back in the day are now older, grown up, and more particular about their game purchasing.  Age tends to give people the discretion necessary to tell a good buy from a complete clunker.  I’d like to think that it’s a pretty safe bet that most of these people, as much as they may hope and yearn for a new Sonic adventure to come along and fill them with that same sense of wonder and enjoyment as the Genesis games did when they were younger, are still smart enough not to buy the trash that Sega is now slapping Sonic’s whored-out name on.


I mean, I’m a Sonic fan, but I’ve been actively avoiding his recent games, not buying them.

So who is buying these games and keeping the character going?

Unless I’m missing a major demographic, that only leaves younger folks; new Sonic fans; the uninitiated.  And again, I am forced to ask: why?

Why would younger gamers have any interest in this character?  He hasn’t been in a game really worth playing since some of them have been born, for heaven’s sake.  Marketing blitzes can do a lot to make up for poor quality, but you’d think the little furry dude’s bad reputation would start spreading around after a while.

Besides, don’t kids these days have been things to than cling to shiny, colorful mascots from the early 1990s?


Like buy more Mario games?  Or blow people to meaty little bits in Gears of War?  Or anything in between?

The world has moved on, for better or worse, from the way it was at the height of Sonic’s popularity.  Yet Sega, and the mysterious customers who are somehow keeping his crap raft afloat, have not.

Poor Sega has fallen quite a long way from their glory days as well, just like their beleaguered mascot.   There’s quite a similarity when you really think about it.  The details of the company’s fall are a topic for another rant, but suffice it to say that I miss the days when I could count on Sega’s products to be cool, innovative and, you know, worth playing.


Sadly, that’s not the case anymore.  Sonic Team, along with the rest of Sega, seem to have completely lost the ability to make a decent game.

So what is this strange phenomenon that is keeping Sonic alive?  Where is this money coming from?  Who is providing it?  What can we do to stop them and finally make Sonic go away?  Isn’t it about time we put the spiky rodent out of his damn misery?


When you really think about it, it’s a little strange that Sonic has remained as important as he has for this length of time.  Compare his track record to Mario’s.  Sonic has been in a scant few games in his career that were truly memorable, just about all of which were Genesis-era.  Mario’s track record isn’t made of solid gold or anything, but I think it’s safe to say he’s got a good deal more quality to his name than the furry rodent does.

Yet both characters continue to live on long after most of their colorful mascot ilk have died off and become ancient relics of a time gone by, when there was no third dimension, when analog was a word only audio professionals cared about, and when the glorious CD glimmering on the horizon was going to revolutionize the world.

Obviously there’s something about Sonic that still appeals to somebody.

I just can’t for the life of me figure out what or for whom.

I guess it’s just part of the little blue guy’s mystery.  Maybe one of these days, if they don’t first suffocate him under a grimy pillow stuffed with terrible products, Sega will finally do right by the little guy.

A fan can dream, can’t he?



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Shiny New Xbox Pretentiousness

I’ll admit it.  I didn’t think that Microsoft was capable of creating a good user interface anymore.

Well, as long as we’re being honest, I’ve never really thought they were terrifically talented at making user experiences that lacked a certain degree of utter failure.
When I first saw the “New Xbox Experience”, I thought it was the most unnecessary, ripped off, needlessly shiny Fisher Price toy that any console maker had come up with.  The overly pretentious moniker made me want to punch everyone who actually called it by that stupid name square in the nose.  I couldn’t wait for it to come out so I could bash Microsoft about their terrible user interface that they forced down my unwilling throat while stealing away my precious blades with a smug grin on their face.

You know, I guess that sometimes it’s good to be completely and utterly wrong.

The actual end product that I find myself using now is terrific.  Not only is it less cluttered, better organized, and more visually appealing (without being distractingly so), it also is worlds snappier than the sluggish blades it replaces.  As much as I like shiny things, and the NXE is definitely a wonderfully shiny thing, its luster is not my favorite feature.  The increased performance is my favorite part of the whole thing by a long shot.

I mean, seriously, I actually had fun playing with the menu when I got to download it a couple of days early due to my beta application a while ago.

I had fun.  With a menu.  Fun.  Menu.

Does not compute.


I guess it’s not totally fair to say that I’ve never enjoyed toying with a menu experience before, because I certainly did just that when I was salivating over my beloved iMac (my first Apple computer) when it arrived almost a year ago.  But menus that are designed so well that they can foster such a positive response from users as to be sources of enjoyment in and of themselves are incredibly rare.

And as long as we’re discussing a connection with Apple….

Okay, sure, the NXE steals more than a few ideas from Apple, Sony, and Nintendo alike.  It’s not 100% original and innovative, it’s true.

But seriously, what the hell is?  Just about every work of human creativity borrows something from another work of human creativity.  That’s the great thing about creative freedom: you get to take what you’ve absorbed from other places and put your own unique spin on it to make something truly yours.

It’s damn near impossible to make something totally original these days, and so while some of the general elements are certainly borrowed, since they allowed Microsoft to build an interface that ultimately tops any of the sources it borrowed from I think it’s hardly fair to hold it against them.

The bottom line is that the NXE is a truly pleasant user experience, and while it’s certainly not perfect (a clear indication that the marketing department has the rest of the team by the balls is when the starting channel is not the one that lets the user play games, but rather the channel that exists solely for the purpose of shoving ads down the user’s throat), it tops its predecessor in just about every way even when the old and busted blades weren’t terrible enough to make a redesign a necessity. Microsoft stepped up to the plate and fixed what many, including myself, didn’t realize was broken even though they didn’t need to.

Good on ‘em, I say.

But I still harbor malicious thoughts against those who actually call it the “New Xbox Experience”.

What a stupid name.

[Post-article note: After searching for images to accompany this article, I have come to the conclusion that there are exactly three images of NXE on the entire Internet and all of them are old.]

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Review – Mirror’s Edge: Frustration Has Never Been This Much Fun

Mirror’s Edge had me from the moment I first saw a glimpse of it. It was a game made just for me. Platforming, racing, a unique art style, and innovation all wrapped up into one tidy package that I knew on first sight I just had to own.

It’s really a shame that the developers weren’t as confident in their concept as I was. In their defense, I suppose it is hard for the creator of a gun-obsessed series like Battlefield to quit weapons cold turkey with a drastic change in tone like Mirror’s Edge. Old habits die hard, right?

Well, yeah, apparently.

The combat in Mirror’s Edge is so clearly the weakest link here that it’s really hard to understand how they could justify it being included at all. With a little tweaking it would not have been hard to make running the only option when faced with foes. Running is certainly the most fun option.

There are numerous sections in the game where Faith is being chased by a group of enemies who are constantly on her tail. One wrong move and she’s toast. She must rely on her reflexes, her skills, and her runner’s instinct to get out alive and outrun her pursuers.

mirrors-edge-sniper_kick_webMoments like those are where the game really shines. The tension hums in the air. Your heart beats faster, fingers gripping the controller in white-knuckled suspense. Inevitably, a few minutes later, this epic chase scene will be followed by running right into the waiting laser sights of far too many armored goons with impeccable aim and nothing even resembling mercy.

Of course. It makes perfect sense that my unarmored, fragile, female protagonist who’s profession relies on her to run everywhere should stop cold and take the enemies down in combat.

Yeah, perfectly logical, that.

Combat is not the only stumble in Mirror’s Edge. There are a number of other nitpicks that could be brought up to drag it kicking and screaming even further away from that ever-elusive goal line of perfection. But among all the things that went slightly awry with this game, the forced combat sections stand out by far as the clearest failure. A clear signal, at least to me, that the developers didn’t quite realize just how awesome their game already was sans fisticuffs.

mirrors-edge-scr1 Perhaps those clever, devil-horned marketing types who couldn’t fathom selling a first-person game without a gun made the decision. Perhaps the developers realized perfectly well what was going on but just didn’t have time to fix it before the ship date. Perhaps the creators were simply afraid of a lack of variety and couldn’t come up with any other way to change things up.

In any case, the damage has been done.

mirrors-edge-slide_webI can deal with most of Mirror’s Edge’s other stumbles. Overly frequent deaths at missed jumps and failed attempts are a small price to pay for not having another completely needless time-manipulation mechanic slapped on the game like so many other spineless platformers these days. A short length is disappointing but hardly signals a death knell in this age of shiny-but-short that we seem to have careened into headfirst thanks to our high-maintenance, testosterone-fueled game consoles of choice. Hell, the time trial mode included in this game might well be the most fun part of the package and it’s highly replayable and, dare I say it, more than a little addictive.

What it all comes down to is that Mirror’s Edge is quite clearly a valiant stab in the dark at a genre many, including myself, wouldn’t have thought possible before its release. If you had asked me half a year ago whether a first-person platformer would be fun I would have had violent flashbacks to horrible Half Life 2 jumping puzzles and then ran screaming away in the other direction screaming, “Oh, God, no!”

me2But here we are and Mirror’s Edge isn’t half bad. Color me surprised. I hope to look back on Mirror’s Edge in the future and say that the best thing about it was that it taught the developers how to make a good game in this style and the sequel ended up being the better game by leaps and bounds. That may well be exactly my thoughts a year or two from now. I look forward to the day.

In the meantime, Mirror’s Edge as it stands isn’t a total loss. You just have to go in with a mindset of forgiveness. Know ahead of time that it’s not perfect, that it requires patience, and that you’ll probably want to change the difficulty to easy to keep yourself sane.

But if you do all of those things, Mirror’s Edge has moments unlike any other game out there. It has thrills like a roller coaster and the most amazingly visceral player-protagonist connection yet seen in gaming, not to mention a gorgeous art style and a story world that at least has promise.

Not bad for taking a blind run at a genre that didn’t exist.

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From the Archives: P.O.A.: Patched on Arrival

Having written quite a few random articles over the years for various tiny, short-lived blogs and web sites nobody has ever heard of, I have a number of articles lying around my hard drive.  Some of them are actually worth reading.  Maybe.  This is one of them.  It was originally posted to an old blog of mine on February 25, 2007.  It has been slightly cleaned up, but is otherwise untouched.  There are plenty of things I could have tacked onto it to make it a little more relevant, such as the PS3’s need to actually install bloody everything now on top of downloading it, but I resisted the temptation.  Enjoy.

Welcome to PC Land, console kiddies!

The day has come at last!  The cute little consoles have finally grown up to experience the glory that their hairy, adult, deep-voiced big brothers, PC gamers, have been basking in for so long.  No longer shall the TV-tethered entertainment boxes be deprived of the brain-shattering wonder that has been dangled in front of their faces like the prospect of anything resembling a decent Sonic game before dazed Sega fans for so long.  No longer shall the land of mind-numbingly confusing keyboard layouts; innumerable Civilization rip-offs; bloated, aging Windows installations screaming to be put out of their misery; graphics cards priced in small children rather than dollars; and enough driver updates to choke an innocent 60 GB hard drive have bragging rights over those poor, simplified, outdated children’s toys cursed with lower prices, more consistent user experiences and a significantly reduced chance of catching one of those nasty email viruses that translates your documents into Swahili and erases all of the Easter Eggs off your DVDs.

Yes my friends, the day has indeed come.  Finally console gamers the world over can open the shrink wrap on their shiny new game disc developed by a friendly marketing department near you, pop it into their system of choice, turn the console on with the power button on the controller instead of the system itself because Jesus-in-a-hair-metal-band it’s so much cooler that way, and enjoy the sight of a glorious download progress bar before they even glimpse the title screen because the developers couldn’t be bothered to actually finish the game before shoving it into our greedy, greasy, impatient hands.

I’m sorry little Timmy.  Your game never stood a chance.  There was nothing we could do to save it.  It was P.O.A.:  Patched on Arrival.

We’ve been able to see the dark cloud of downloadable evil floating our way for quite a while now, ever since that blasted Internet thingy started creeping its insidious way into our beloved boxes of isolated joy.  All we could do was hope that maybe we could be spared the fate of those poor bastards the PC gamers, who have had to go through this shit ever since 28.8 Kbps modems became the coolest thing since fried ice cream.

Alas, it was not to be so.

Crackdown is just the most recent offender.  Many before it in our new generation of orgasmic high-definition awesomeness have undergone last minute digital surgery, if not right at launch, then soon thereafter.

“It’s really not that big of a deal,” I can hear you whiny little bastards protest from the sidelines.  Well of course it’s not you little pricks, but that doesn’t make it good.  Don’t shovel unfinished crap on me and then expect me to act as your beta tester.  If I’m going to be a game tester I want to work 27 consecutive 24-hour stress-filled days fueled by pizza, soda, and self-loathing like the real thing, not have the task forced upon me when I’m expecting a finished game.

It’s a snowball effect that’s going to be damn hard to stop, too.  Once one lazy developer sees they can get away with it, news of their success is going to spread quicker than that of Alisha breaking up with Adam at the 12-year-olds’ gossip convention until every game on the shelves will be a half-finished pathetic excuse for a real game just waiting for a magical Internet transfer of ones and zeroes to make it whole (or ¾ anyway; whole is probably stretching it a tad).

So sit back and weep, gamers.  The day has come and, alas, it is a dark one indeed.

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For the first time in eight years, I can truly say that I am proud to be an American.  It’s a pretty good feeling.  One that I sincerely hope isn’t fleeting.  Way to go, America.  You’ve given this hardened pessimist some hope.


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Frighteningly Enjoyable

Frankly, I didn’t think I could find a game like Fatal Frame II enjoyable.

I recently had the opportunity to go back and play it along with a group of friends and, suffice it to say, my expectations for enjoyment were not stunningly high.

First off, and I’m not afraid to admit this, I thought I would be too damn scared to enjoy myself.  Aside from that, there was a small heap of niggling issues I thought would distract me as well: crappy controls, too much backtracking, inane puzzles, or any of a number of other stumbles of pre-Resident Evil 4 horror games.

The funny thing is, the game actually ends up avoiding almost none of these annoyances, but I still found myself hooked.

I was playing the Xbox version of the game in the shiny new first-person mode it offers, avoiding the tank-like mess of a control scheme the game uses by default (along with most of its horror peers of the time, sadly).  Even so, poor Mio has the walking speed of a toddler and she turns ever so slightly slower than a diseased turtle.  Not to mention that the limited perspective of being stuck inside the frightened pre-teen’s head means all manner of spooks appeared outside my field of view.

In other words, even with updated controls that are immensely preferable to the originals, the game still manages to be clunky as hell.

In the course of playing this game, I must have traversed every inch of that stupid town fifty-seven times.  I solved all sorts of utterly random puzzles that had no connection to what was going on in the reality of the game world whatsoever.

But still, despite all evidence to the contrary, I couldn’t wait to pick the game up again and see it through to the end.

Truthfully it did even more than that.  It made me want to play other horror games when I previously had little desire to do so.  It’s a real shame most of the genre is stuck in the same trends that almost turned me off of Fatal Frame.  As much as I want to, I’m not even sure I could play the other Fatal Frame titles where the first-person view isn’t an option.

There’s something about this genre that seems to appeal a lot to what I like in games.  The heavy doses of atmosphere, focus on their environments, and a constant stream of new experiences play to what I look for in a lot of games in general.  If they could just get past a few hurdles far too common to the genre (higher-than-necessary difficulty, annoying resource limitations, and bad game mechanics like control and camera angles) then I’d be far more interested in the genre as a whole.

As it is, it looks like I’ll be forced to scrape around the horror bins for the few titles that play to my tastes while enjoying the atmospheric and scary elements of other games that aren’t really from the horror genre proper, such as those in Bioshock.

How I long for more games like F.E.A.R. that can strike a balance between creepy atmosphere, scary moments, and actually decent controls.

Anyhoo, it’s fairly clear that there’s something about Fatal Frame that’s more that the sum of its decidedly mediocre parts.  Much of its appeal surely comes from its excellent atmosphere and the fascinating, if overly confusing, story that it tells.

It’s almost enough to make me pick up the other games in the series and just learn to deal with the clumsy controls.


Oh, and just for the record, I held up much better against the scares the game threw at me than I thought I would.

Really.  I did.

All right, fine.  It scared the pants off of me on more than one occasion.  But I made it through the game didn’t I?  That’s better than I thought I’d do going in.

Color me surprised.

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