Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Super Nintendo Turns 25

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Super Nintendo Turns 25]

The Super Nintendo – or the SNES for short – celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Granted this may not mean much to the Sega faithful from the 80’s and 90’s, but as I’ve mentioned in previous posts I was a Nintendo kid growing up. My formative game time came courtesy of the original Nintendo Entertainment System. The Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt double cartridge for NES sank so many of my hours that it would be tough to tabulate how many fire flowers I digitally ingested or how many rounds I popped off on my Zapper light gun. When I discovered RPG’s and action/adventure games, that would put my hours logged shooting ducks to shame. I liked the obscure stuff – the stuff that none of my friends had, so I had some stock in trading cartridges with them like Yo! Noid and Seicross. And of course, my personal favorites Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, The Legend of Zelda, Ninja Gaiden and The Goonies II.

My friends and I all thought we were in the golden age of video games, but little did we know that the next-gen console introduced at the turn of the decade would change how the game is played forever. And you know, we were kids. That’s not an exaggeration even given my penchant for hyperbole – in 1990 the Super Nintendo, affectionately known as the SNES, changed everything.

Back then terms like “16 bit” didn’t really mean much to me – all that I was able to see then was how I could do more things, and how games were deeper, and how the technology now existed to make better music and more memorable stories. We had a unit at home now that brought the flash of the arcade to our living room, and gaming went from single player to social time with friends. But still, what was so special about the SNES that brought about this change? It even overtook the Genesis, its 16-bit rival from Sega, which was already on the market with a number of games available.

First off on the list of excellence was the SNES controller. This was the first console controller to feature six buttons with triggers on the corners to make gameplay more complex and fun. This stomped on the Genesis, which only gave us 3 buttons to play with. Sega was forced to make a 6 button version in 1993 to keep up. Anyone who’s played Street Fighter II Turbo and tried to pull off Vega’s jump dive on the Genesis will more than surely attest to what kind of pain was removed just from having more buttons. And that was one of the things that made it great – a six button controller made arcade fighters playable without a cabinet, and more importantly, without the aforementioned pain. It played right into the control scheme of the Street Fighter series with 3 punch and kick buttons each. Even Mortal Kombat titles needed 4 to be played cleanly – 2 each for punch and kick buttons. So instead of standing around in an arcade bleeding quarters into a game for play credits, round robin “winner keeps playing” sessions were how we did things. And good lord was it fun – the multiplayer of our time.

The controller setup was copied and used as a standard for generations to come. Look at your current PS4 and XBOX One controllers. They may have a couple of extra triggers and thumb sticks but what is the core control? 4 buttons, arranged in a diamond, with triggers on the side. Even though it was a big jump from the A and B buttons on the 8-bit NES, it let players have a control method that became second nature.

The controller was only as good as games that were made for it, and the titles pumped out in addition to arcade fighters for the SNES were legendary. Upgraded games with familiar characters came to life on the screen, starting with the Super Mario World title that shipped with the console. That game on its own took existing IP and brought it into a new generation with scrolling levels, a vast world map to travel and multiple power ups.

Even the pure graphical power, clearly able to be seen when dozens of cannons with moving projectiles came at you on side scrolling levels in World 8 left a player wondering what else this machine could do. The Legend of Zelda was upgraded and we had a new adventure with A Link to the Past, arguably one of the greatest video games of all time. And with each game release, developers showed what was possible by pushing the SNES engine – Pilotwings. StarFox. Donkey Kong Country. F-Zero. Each great in their own way, each memorable for different reasons, and each being a genre flagship on which future titles for future systems would stand on the shoulders of. It was quite literally a Super Nintendo. Better tech meant more colors, music with enough tones to provide mood, and it even dabbled in 3D gaming with the help of the SuperFX chip (self contained without the add-ons Sega was investing in, I might add).

And I must make special mention of one of my favorite games of all time, Uniracers. Thanks for wrecking that one for us, Pixar Legal.

Final Fantasy fans in particular were given installments II and III in the series, re-branded from the Japanese IV and VI. Again, these games opened the door to what was possible when technology allows for good storytelling, and elements and themes of these games are even visible in the upcoming Final Fantasy XV.

The SNES became more than just a game console. It was a solid proof of concept that games as a medium could tell a story and draw players into a virtual world where they could connect with their characters, require them to even take notes on some of the more complex puzzles, and give greater choice to the player on how he or she wanted the game to go. It launched an era that made games evolve from mindless entertainment to a real digital experience. And from indie developers to triple A studios, it’s a legacy that still influences what a game should be.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Aging Gamer: Archetype, Age, and Leveling Up]

What do you kids know about archetypes? They are a set of what psychiatrist Carl Jung called “elements of the collective unconscious” a long time ago- basically roles people play, or a persona if you will, underlying their behaviors. I’ll skip the rest of the the psych lesson for today but whether you know it or not, in our sphere of geekery, archetypes are the basis of what forms characters and situations in movies. And that includes video games. In my opinion, it’s why we’re drawn to certain characters that we play. For games that allow character customization it’s even more true – it’s why we design them the way we do.

Since I started my gaming life with the first Final Fantasy on the NES, I’ve I’ve encountered two types of gamers over the years. The first is the watcher, experiencing the game in the third person – connecting with with the game world from the third person, acting like the game’s God. The second is more me – and that’s the player that not so much sees him or herself outside of the game looking down, but draws parallels to the characters and identifies with them. And it’s interesting to see what kind of characters one identifies with since I do think it says a lot about that person. It’s a combination of what we see in ourselves and maybe a little bit of something we’d love to see in ourselves too. What’s coming next doesn’t really apply to that first type of gamer, since what i’m talking about is player identification with characters. But like I said the second type is all me. And there’s a lot of different archetypes that players like me could identify with.

To break it down a little better, let’s work with some material we should all be familiar with – the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Let’s look at a few of of the characters and how they’re portrayed through archetypes in book and film. Not a complete list, but here we go:

  • The Hero: Aragorn (ok arguably Frodo but I’m sticking with the son of Arathorn here) – the central character around whose journey we see things, struggling to find himself and realize his true potential.
  • The Sidekick: Legolas (or Sam if Frodo’s your hero) – The hero’s trusty and faithful companion. Not the main character in the story but without their help the hero would fall.
  • The Sage: Gandalf – the wise old man there to offer guidance to our young hero and unlock their hidden potential.
  • The Villain: Sauron – for whatever their reason, just wants to watch the world burn.
  • The Trickster: Pippin – through their actions they mess with everyone else’s plans, but inherently their antics magically help save the day.
  • The Maiden: Arwen – the intuitive female and usually the hero’s counterpart.
  • The Mother: Galadriel – Nurturing and love.
  • The Shapeshifter: Smeagol/Gollum – Brings uncertainty to the hero’s journey, possibly a turncoat bastard.
So there are more than that depending on who you’re talking to, and yes in modern times a lot of these are subject to modification, but I think you’re picking up what I’m putting down. We can see them as character classes.

(short break for game rage – if you roll a rogue in World of Warcraft, I’m going to give you hell for your overt trickery and cowardice on principle).

When I was young I always identified with the classic hero. Strolling through killing monsters with sword and board, pushing the attack, and fulfilling prophecies sounded pretty good. Going back to that Final Fantasy on the NES, my lead character was a fighter named Tush (we only had the 4 letters in the 8-bit days). I’d set up my support and away I’d go. I wouldn’t lead with a black belt character for example, because in my head “the guy leading the charge doesn’t wear wooden armor, what’s with that?” And in every RPG since then for a long time, that continued. Little did I know until later that this mildly squishy character evolves to become the game’s best pure physical damage dealer by a mile – unarmed to boot. The same holds with Gandalf in our Lord of the Rings comparison – how much did you cringe when he didn’t know which way to go in Moria? or when he was chilling with his pipe weed from the shire? Little did we know that wasn’t even his final form. Gandalf the White tore it up in Minas Tirith and worked with the story’s trickster to (surprise) trick everyone into lighting the beacons for the greater good.

Ironically now I’m a Jiu Jitsu blue belt with a penchant for collar chokes so you know, things change. My retro-apologies to the black belt class back in ’89.

As we get older (or at least as I got older), we change into different people that place higher value on different parts of life, and have a more balanced and nuanced view of ourselves, including which traits we foster and which we ignore. It’s like our stat sheet changes, we level up like mad, and we start multiclassing for the sake of party balance.

I stopped identifying with the brash and unexperienced hero. There’s a fading amount of that material I connect with anymore. It’s different seeing what’s around us instead of understanding only what we can see. Shooting from the hip was replaced with forethought and battle plans long ago. So who I do see more of myself in is the Sage. I’ve done a lot, I’ve gone through a number of trials and tribulations, and now I have wisdom to pass down and help people as a seasoned sage. I help coach kids in martial arts. I mentor younger geeks trying to make a name in the field. Struggles are different, and one sees thing with a wider lens. I’ve gone from Tidus to Auron. Wrynn to Khadgar. Pharah to Ana. Neo to Morpheus.

Wolverine to… well, Wolverine.

And that seriously affects how I play games these days. As much as the internet has turned Overwatch‘s Soldier:76 into a old man dad for all the other characters for example, there’s pieces of him I can get on board with. Sometimes one feels grizzled or grumpy, or hell I’ll say it, Clint Eastwood-y. And Soldier:76 kind of speaks to that. He can still do damage but can take care of others with heals. And he’s not ashamed to use tech to help him get the job done. Tactical visor activated all up in this point, bastards.

I heal more too. While when I started World of Warcraft I wasn’t about to heal any dungeons, but now in Overwatch I break it down with LĂșcio keeping everyone up with those heals. Healer and Mage classes that stack intelligence over strength speak louder to me now, because that’s my primary stat in life. I live because of my brain, and manipulate tech to do my bidding with a digital staff which doubles as a whoopin’ stick for young whippersnappers that get insolent.

It’s not just games this holds true for – there are other spheres of geek media that this spill over into. I have more appreciation for a well written complex character who’s a little bit older but has far more depth. Because I’d like to believe that about myself. Dumbledore was my homeboy in the Harry Potter series, and I know this may come as a shock and some of you may get a bit angry for what I’m about to say, but Peter Capaldi’s my Doctor in Doctor Who, more so than Matt Smith and David Tennant.

I’m not saying that there’s no room for young and hotheaded in the games I play. I’m just saying people change, and their tastes in things like this, while mundane to most, weirdly have a lot to say on who we are. And I’m in a place now where I can appreciate that.

Because make no mistake – I still have my means for taking down the metaphorical Ganons out there like a champ but…

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Done with Fighting Games

[Originally published on Sub Cultured as The Aging Gamer: Done with Fighting Games?]

You can count on my having been an all purpose nerd for pretty much my entire life - to the tune of getting the call at age 10 to hook up my friends' new SNES. And after I made the recommendation of A/V cables over the RF switch to connect it, he pulls out a shiny fresh Street Fighter II cartridge to bless the console with. Thus started the age of fighting games, round robin style - friends in a room where the winner victoriously clenches a controller, while his/her defeated adversary reluctantly passes theirs on. Now, take into account that this was 1991. I didn't have a fast internet connection let alone a computer. So this was social gaming for us - no XBOX Live Lobby or PSN connections. Trash talk was live, and we were absolutely hype out of our minds.

This continued through college (fast forward 10 years to 2001) where Soul Calibur became my new jam. My next door neighbor and I both became so good at it that we used to play in versus mode using Edge Master vs. Edge Master for added challenge to see who could hit 99 wins first. The only time we ever made it that far we were tied at 98-98, and when tension was at maximum on round 197, we double KO'd each other. We shook hands and decided never to do that again.

Sodas and chips turned to beer and pizza as we got older, but trash talk and admonishing each other for cheap ring-out victories stayed the same. But of course there were times when ridiculous things like classes and homework and labs got in the way. During those times, if you couldn't get a quorum together, then you played alone. And that was OK! Most of the fighters I played had a built-in arcade or story mode, where you could follow a selected character's storyline through after beating a final boss and seeing an ending. Characters were actually, well, characters. And you had a favorite, not necessarily because you "owned" with them, but just because you liked them.

And up to a point, if the arcade mode wasn't enough for you, the Soul series went a step further in SC2 and SC3, by giving you a full scale additional single player campaign, allowing the player to create a character for a full scale RTS-type experience. And it was excellent. I could sit alone when the weather outside was frightful and go knuckles deep into a solo mission.

But then the decay started. Soul Calibur 4  replaced their secondary single player mode with some strange tower game. Then Namco robbed me of my money that I spent on the Soul Calibur 5 Collector's Edition for what started off as a story mode but fooled me good. There was no story. Characters just came from some sort of abyss with no explanation and no backstory. I dubbed the game "incomplete," but became clear to me later that this was intentional, and was tuned for online play in PvP.

Street Fighter V did the same thing, by entrancing me with FMV video in their commercials leaving me to guess all the character relationships and who was fighting who else for what purpose. It pointed to some sort of story mode in the game, but as we all saw earlier this year, Capcom opted to not include single player arcade content. This was again, clearly intentionally incomplete. The quicker a PvP version of the game came out the quicker it could be played in video game tournaments. Problem is, that leaves out the con-competitive player in a series of games that traditionally had something for us - especially on CONSOLES, I mean come on. And if they'd advertised as such, I'd be ok with it. But that's where it seems like it's going with 2 of the major fighter franchises purposefully omitting single player options when they used to be (at least in the Soul series) extremely rich and deep.

I'm a cranky old man now, and I've always enjoyed fighters to play with my friends - or even moreso - play alone. I don't want to pull a pro-level gamer who does this 10 hours a day to trounce the hell out of me to "lol"s. Screw that. I have a job and other things to do, and it may be old fashioned to say so but I'm only willing to buy a game if I'll get an hour enjoyment out of each dollar I spend. I'm set in my ways, and when I can't play a fighting game on a console with people I know then I'd like to have a option to satisfactorily play alone. And that's what the story/arcade modes have always been. I want my gaming downtime to be enjoyable, not frustrating on the so called Capcom Pro Tour. So if this is the way fighting games are going, well then I may be done with them.

Yoshinori Ono, Street Fighter Producer, did however say earlier this month that he underestimated the popularity of single player features." Now if something comes from that, I'll consider strapping on the gi and red headband once more, Ono San.