Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reads A Book

As I usually do with my friends, I recently got into a long conversation about retro gaming: which console was the best, what games you played or wish you’d played, things that retro games had that modern gen games don’t (“dying…a lot” seemed to be the consensus answer), and general arguing over what games are best. Afterwards, I was recommended a book to read. That book was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I was already in the middle of A Dance with Dragons, but since that’s a hefty book that I could use a break from, I went right out and bought a copy of Cline’s novel.

Growing up I wasn't much of a reader. The only consistent reading I did was when Brian Jacques (RIP) released a new book in the Redwall series. Otherwise, I typically spent most of my free time  playing video games  in the basement or having N64 sleepovers at my best friend’s place (Goldeneye 007 Multiplayer Champ - Sleepover of ’98!). To me, books weren't immediately gratifying and took too long, so I opted to instead play epic JRPGs that sucked up 80+ hours of my life <rolls eyes at self>. I eventually outgrew that “not reading” habit, but had they written a book like Ready Player One when I was growing up, I would have read more (and if they did, I sadly never heard of it).

One of the best fantasy series for any age, period.

Ernest Cline’s first novel takes place in a not-too-distant future on a resource depleted and desolate Earth. Human’s finally pushed the planet to the breaking point and now only the rich could afford to live comfortably while the rest of humanity lived in squalor. However, thanks to a revolutionary MMO game, the OASIS, people could literally immerse themselves in a virtual world and leave behind their ruinous existence (think World of Warcraft, but massive and with the use of a more advanced Oculus Rift).

Mixed in with this are more gaming and pop culture references form the 80s than you’d ever imagine existed. Ernest Cline is obviously a man who loves the 80s and retro gaming, and it clearly shows in his writing. The real stars of this love fest are classic gaming consoles like the Atari 2600 and Magnavox Odyssey and arcade hits like Joust and Pac Man. If you grew up watching movies like WarGames, then you’ll not only get all the references, but you’ll love this book. And even if you were just born in the 80s but spent your childhood gaming in the 90s (like me), you’ll still appreciate the passion for video games throughout the novel.

Of course this takes less time and effort than reading a book...

While reading Ready Player One, a though occurred to me – I was reading a book about video games, and not just any book, but a New York Times best-selling novel. Growing up, if I wanted to write a book about my love for the N64 and the Game Boy and the PS2, I would've immediately thought “there’s no way anyone wants to hear some nerd ramble about RPGs and video game soundtracks.” See, growing up I always felt a stigma with my passion for video games (and still do today to a certain degree). Despite my lengthy love-affair with my hobby, I was able to be sociable enough to get a close-knit group of friends, the vast majority of which didn't understand why I spent so much time with a controller in my hands. Regardless, they rarely openly ragged on me about it, but I still felt like my interests made me an outsider. Because of this, I always considered gaming as this secluded, otherworldly sect of human hobbies, where the only people who could enjoy it would be those who could never connect with anyone but like-minded individuals (the term “social lepers” comes to mind).

I eventually realized that I was not defined by my gaming, but deep down I still felt a bit of shame (looking back I realize this was self-perpetuated as my friends and family were, if not supportive of my habits, accepted that they were a part of who I was). So imagine my joy when I started reading a book openly and proudly displaying its fervor for gaming. And not just any gaming: retro, old-school, “I coded my own text adventure game at the age of 10”, holy 8-bit graphics gaming. Despite all the stigma that gaming has gone through over the years – the mocking, the public image of pimple-faced virgins living in their parent’s basements, the congressional hearing on violence in gaming, Shaq Fu – people in the world are finally willing to read a geek-out novel on the subject.

Don't worry - this book isn't an illusion.

Somewhere deep inside, Middle-School-Gamer is smiling and understands that times are changing for today’s generation of gamers. Sure, there will always be people in this world that look down on us and see us as pasty agoraphobics with nary a real world friend in sight, but those people are, and will always be, wrong. There are millions of people in this world who have a hobby that they love, and the majority of them are well-adjusted people with families and jobs (because let’s face it, gaming ain't cheap). Even though I know that I’ll always have an unfounded internal conflict between being a “socially awkward” gamer and a “normal” person in society, I have hope that the future will hold a brighter outlook for gamers; that they will not have to face the level of stigma that previous generations had to endure. A national best-selling book about the hobby we love so much is a damn good start.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Poll of the Week Results: What To Review?

Thank you to everyone who voted in our first ever weekly poll. It was a close race down the stretch between three games: Dead Island, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, and Suikoden III. I've personally never played Suikoden III or Dead Island before, and it’s been over 10 years since I played Yoshi’s Island so no matter which game won it would be a fresh experience for me as a gamer.

This would make for a very strange yet entertaining battle.
Despite Dead Island holding the lead for most of the week, the retro gamers showed up in force and put Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on top. So for the next week or so I’ll be playing my way through the whimsical world of Yoshi, collecting red coins, turning enemies into eggs, and trying my best to keep baby Mario on my Yoshi to avoid that obnoxious crying noise. Look for the review and possibly some gameplay footage next week.

A simpler time when games weren't for "Everyone", but for "Kids-Adults".

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews Pokémon Conquest

Pokémon is one of those series you just know will be spoken of for years to come as one of the greats. Not only did it addict an entire generation to collecting all 150 151 of those pocket creatures from the original games back in 1996, but it single-handedly made handheld gaming a legitimate medium for gamers around the world. Since then, Pokémon has grown to so much more than a simple yet difficult RPG and a Saturday morning anime show – it has truly  become an icon of video gaming with the likes of Sonic, Mario, and Donkey Kong.

I was one of millions of people swept away in the original Poké-mania (Squirtle all the way!), however,  I  found that the gameplay of the series soon became repetitive and a bit dull over time. Sure the new Pokémon that came out with each version were cool (even though nothing will ever replace the original 151 in my mind), but the strategy remained the same no matter how deep the gameplay and story line got. It was because of this that I took a very large hiatus from playing Pokémon between Gold and White, and then after playing White I felt let down. I had to face the facts: Pokémon had become stale for me and I would have only Blue and Red to hold on to…that is, until I discovered Pokémon Conquest.

I'll admit, it's hard to feel like a bad ass with an Eevee.

I picked up Pokémon Conquest on a whim while on vacation. I would be away from my consoles for a week and like a junky I needed a gaming fix to hold me over. I was heavily considering Animal Crossing, but since New Leaf for the 3DS had just been released, I decided to go with a more solo adventure. Admittedly, I was a bit leery given my recent meh experience with Pokémon White, but Conquest isn’t your father’s Pokémon (trust me, this will be a saying one day in the near future, and it will be regarding you and Red/Blue when Pokémon Adamantium releases for the Nintendo Brain-Chip).

Don’t let my previous complaints about the Pokémon series fool you – I’m a big fan of those cute and powerful pocket monsters, and I still respect the series for revolutionizing RPGs and pumping new life into handheld gaming. I’m also a fan of strategic gameplay, whether it be RTS, turn-based, or something with a mix of either. Thus, I was optimistic and wanted Pokémon Conquest to be a good game (otherwise I’d be making another trip to the local gaming store). As soon as the game started, it didn’t disappoint. The premise is simple enough: you’re a Warrior, a unique individual with the ability to communicate with Pokémon via a “Link”. You hail from the kingdom of Ransei where neighboring castles have been warring for centuries. Your goal is to unite all 17 kingdoms under one banner in order to prompt a legendary Pokémon to reveal itself and Link to the ruler of Ransei (aka - you). This is your quest. Sounds simple enough, right?

Major bonus points if you can correctly guess "Who's that Pokémon?". 

Not so fast, my friend! There’s a warlord already on the same path to unite the 17 kingdoms, but in typical crazy antagonist fashion he wishes to use the legendary Pokémon to destroy the world. Time to get conquering, buddy! You begin with nothing but a few other Warriors at your side, and from there the choice is yours as to which neighboring kingdoms to start invading. The game limits your area of expansion to a few kingdoms at a time so you don’t overstep your strength and get destroyed by a much more powerful warlord. Each kingdom is themed, with the majority of the Pokémon having a specific  type (e.g. – Ignis is the fire kingdom, so you can bet you’ll find a Tepig, a Chimchar, and a Charmander ready to smoke your grass types).

Strengths and weaknesses follow the same pattern as they have in every Pokémon series before Conquest, so strategy is the name of the game when forming your invasion party. Since each kingdom is themed, it’s pretty easy to prepare for domination by loading up on Warriors with Pokémon that have an advantage over the kingdom’s type. What isn’t easy is actually building your repertoire of Warriors and Pokémon. Like I said, this isn’t a typical Pokémon game. You don’t keep them in Pokéballs, and you don’t capture Pokémon either. This means there’s no more stalking through tall grass (HUZZAH!), but it also means you’ll have to do a little bit of grinding. Every kingdom has a place where wild Pokémon and roving Warriors will appear. You can enter these areas to form Links with wild Pokémon, or recruit Warriors by defeating them in a set number of turns.

Gotta Catch 'Em All!

Forming Links is an easy affair consisting of “hitting A at a certain time enough times in a row”, but not every Pokémon is a good Link with you or your Warriors, as each has a specialty type they prefer. Even then there’s no guarantee an electric-type Warrior will form a perfect Link with that Mareep. Luckily you don’t need a perfect Link to have a strong bond, and I found myself not caring to find them. Links are further strengthened by winning battles or performing tasks like training or digging for gold (you gotta fund that war somehow). The higher the Link, the stronger your attacks become.

Speaking of attacks, this is one area where Conquest feels a bit cheap. You know how certain Pokémon get more awesome moves with experience, and how they would eventually allow more diversity of type-based moves? Well they threw this out the window for Conquest. If you fight with Eevee, you only have one attack from now until the end of the game, and it’s the same for every Eevee in the game. The only ways to get new moves is to Link with new Pokémon and/or evolve your Pokémon (which can be done with special items, reaching a certain Link level with your Pokémon, or performing certain tasks). However, this does give more incentive for diversifying the Pokémon you Link with, which is essential if you’re going to unite the realm.

The game runs on a month-based time system. Each month passes once all Warriors have made a “move” whether it’s training, battling, or other tasks. The good thing about Conquest is that you don’t have to micro-manage your army. You can set 6 Warriors to guard Greenleaf against invasion, and tell them to dig for gold every month to fund your main fighting force. This was a great way to not only build your army but also stay focused on the task at hand. Pokémon also have energy levels which can be affected by the month, so you can use that in your strategy and take time to increase their energy in preparation for an upcoming battle so your Pokémon will be at 100%.

Pokémon + Turn-Based Strategy = Super Effective!

Overall, the main story took me about 15 hours to beat, and it likely would have taken me less time had I not taken the time to Link with more diverse Pokémon for the fun of it. However, if 15 hours isn’t enough time to entice you, beating the main story is just the beginning. Once that’s done, the game opens up multiple other story quests to dive into, each based on a Warrior encountered during the main quest. The more Warriors you recruit in the main storyline, the more side quests you unlock. This added depth was a great way to extend the life of the game, and the different difficulties and lengths of each new quest kept me coming back for more. In total, Pokémon Conquest is easily a 30+ hour game when all is said and done.

So there you have it: a Pokémon game for a new generation, mixing in elements that made the franchise famous while also cleverly incorporating turn-based strategy gameplay. It does a lot of things right, and apart from the occasional grind to achieve victory in the next battle, this game is damn near perfect. If you’re a fan of either Pokémon or strategy games, you can’t go wrong with Conquest. 

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Graduated Gamer Rants About Vendors

Trying to relive the glory years of my gaming past has turned out to be more difficult than I thought. At this point it’s led to nothing but me raging about morons who know nothing about gaming and see nothing but dollar signs when they look at a classic game cart. I just couldn't shake the terrible feeling I got after an experience at a flea market, even weeks later, so I figured I needed to share it with people in an extra attempt to exorcise this funk.

It all started over a month ago. After feeling quite down after a hard day at work and instead of doing something to raise my spirits I decided to take a self-destructive trip down painful memory lane.  I looked up my eBay history to review the time I sold almost my entire collection of used/retro games and consoles. After feeling depressed for another day or so, I finally became inspired to rebuild my gaming collection. Seeing as how it consisted of an SNES, PS2/PS1, and a Game Boy with games, how hard could it be? It’s not like I had a MIB Odyssey or anything else super rare. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Yup, you get another dose of my shame. Let it be an A++++ lesson for you all.

After 15 minutes of research I knew the first major obstacle I’d have to overcome was inflation. Apparently retro gaming has become really trendy and hip in the 6 years since selling my collection, causing prices for most old carts, manuals, and even guides to increase significantly. After swearing under my breath at myself a few times and blaming hipsters for this trend (when all else fails, blame hipsters), I tried to find creative ways to circumvent or at least soften this potential blow to my bank account. I thought, “I’ll use Craigslist, eBay, garage sales, and flea markets to rebuild my collection in no time.” Well, if you’re a retro gamer and collector, you know that eBay and (typically) Craigslist are breeding grounds for overpriced items and people with more money than knowledge on the subject, so these ideas were abandoned (I still browse Craigslist and eBay for those rare instances where you actually find a good deal, of which I've found a few).

This left only garage sales and flea markets. Since garage sales take more gas and time than I was willing to give, and since I was on vacation at the time, I started with a flea market. I figured I’d show up and there’d be stalls with old women selling things from their houses out of corrugated cardboard boxes and that I’d be able to snatch up some sweet SNES and Genesis carts for great deals. I had no idea what I was really in for. Apparently I’m too optimistic for my own good and have no idea how the real world works these days. No sooner did I enter the flea market did I spot a stall solely dedicated to video games – everything from the PS3/360 all the way down to the Atari 2600 was available for sale, including consoles, controllers, cords, you name it, they likely had it. I struck up a conversation with the proprietor who seemed knowledgeable and interested in my questions, even when they weren't about price. It appeared that I had found a fantastic start to my journey – it seemed too good to be true. How right I was.

I’m not one to just throw down money without doing my research first, so I decided to explore the mile-long flea market for other stalls. As you’d expect, my search didn't turn up any gem-filled boxes or unknowing old ladies. Instead all I got was lots of junk, old TVs, movie TAPES (seriously, I thought all VCRs and VHS tapes were ordered to be destroyed by the government or something), and “antiques”. Only one other booth sold video games, and the prices were outrageous – the average mark-up over standard price on loose retro carts and systems was at least 50%, sometimes as high as 75%. I left disgusted and disheartened, feeling like my past, my nostalgia, was now a distorted and mangled means for others to line their pockets. It was at that point that I decided to head back to the original stall to pick up some SNES and Genesis games (hell, maybe even a PS2 game here and there for $3 each). This was when the experience went from bad to worse.

This is essentially what shopping at a flea market looks and feels like.

I guess at this point in my life I should know a shark when I see one, but I’m generally a trusting person who tries to see the good in people. Perhaps it was the earlier conversation I had with the stall proprietor, or perhaps I was just in awe at the vast amounts of old Genesis, NES, and SNES games he had for sale, but whatever it was I thought this guy genuinely enjoyed gaming and respected it. Sure he was selling stuff and had to make money, but there’s always room to haggle and discuss price, right? Wrong. After looking for about 15 minutes and getting a stack of SNES, PS1, Genesis, and NES games set to go, I went to talk to the owner about price. Before he even mentioned a price, he told me that there was no way he was going to let me buy Final Fantasy Tactics, and said he was putting that on eBay. He then started bragging about how he got more money from eBay than anywhere else and his latest sales to what I assume he called “suckers”.

I was a little more than disappointed since FF Tactics is one of those games I started in my younger days but never finished. But there was still room for redemption with the remaining 6 games in hand. After hearing his prices for each, I went into barter mode. However, no sooner did a few words get out of my mouth did he interrupt me to tell me that at this point his prices were “take it or leave it” and that I had wasted enough of his time, during which 5 or 6 people came and went from his stall. Apparently my perusing and potential business distracted him so much that he missed 5 or 6 more suckers that he could grub more money out of. I was not only taken aback – I was pissed. I wish I could say I fired a witty retort back at him as I left, but I instead set the games down carefully (because unlike him I respect gaming and see it as much more than a way to make money), wished him luck with the rest of his day,  and walked away.

Needless to say I did no more shopping that day at the flea market. I helped haul my girlfriend’s box of finds to the car and stewed over the events of the day. I must have been very naïve, but it seems that somewhere between the day I sold my game collection and the present, retro gaming has become bastardized and commercialized. For so many people in this world, retro gaming is a means to so many things – rekindling old memories, reliving glory days, or just enjoying simple-old-fashioned gaming where the only achievement in the game is beating the final boss (and for some games, that’s one hell of an achievement). But I fear that retro gaming, due to its recent trendiness, has become simply another way for companies like GameStop and various other used games stores across the country to make a buck.

The face of evil has changed a lot over the years.

My original intent was to end on that very negative note, but you know what gamers, over the last couple of weeks I've realized that there’s still hope. I've met a few really awesome people through Craigslist who have not only appreciated my love for games and given me good deals, but they've also shared their great knowledge and passion for gaming, which in some ways is just as much fun as playing the games themselves. Sure, gaming has become commercialized and I may never truly rebuild my entire collection for the right price, but in my journey I've learned that no matter how much resale shops and vendors and eBay grifters raise the prices of the games we love, we’ll always have our drive and our love for gaming, and you sure as hell can’t put a price tag on that.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Poll of the Week is Live!

Hello fellow gamers! As a new way for you, the reader, to direct some of the content in this blog I have decided to conduct a weekly poll. I'll ask you various questions from games to review, to favorites in the gaming industry, to opinions on current gaming affairs. I hope you'll take the time to give your opinion each week and help make this blog fantastic. Happy voting!

You never know what I might ask you to vote on!

Playing Hooky - Shadow of the Colossus Part 1

Growing up, I didn't play very many “artistic” games. The closest I came in my younger years was Earthbound, but many would just call it quirky. It wasn't until I played the follow-up to ICO, the critically acclaimed Shadow of the Colossus that I truly understood what it meant for a game to be considered art. As you may recall we've touched on games as art before in this brilliant post by Andrew about FF7. Many of you found it an interesting read and at the time of this post it remains the highest viewed content on the blog.

After various talks with Andrew about games with an artistic style and stir the emotions, I suggested he play Shadow of the Colossus to experience what I felt was a must-play, not just for the PS2 but for any generation. I decided to record these sessions so that I could not only get Andrew’s reactions to the game, but also so that you all could experience something that is truly brilliant, gorgeous, and something that I think every game should experience at least once. So please enjoy the first of many segments where Andrew and I play hooky with Shadow of the Colossus.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Graduated Gamer Has Made A Huge Mistake

If you’re old enough to have survived middle school, you’re old enough to know that life is full of regrets. You wish you had gone to that concert before that band broke up, you wish you’d taken Karen to prom, and you really wish you didn't eat that street cart tamale – and those are just examples from the real world. Now enter the world of gaming and you’re full an entirely different set of regrets: the Atari Jaguar, Half-Life 3, and Xbox One’s release at E3 to name a few. Gaming is serious business for those who partake in this lifestyle (some people would call it a waste of time, but don’t worry, I stopped reading my parents texts and returning their calls long ago), and if you've been gaming through at least a couple of console generations chances are you've bought a game you ended up hating or made the mistake of loaning a favorite game to an unreliable friend (RIP ToeJam and Earl).

Still, most gaming regrets are easily reversible and won’t put you on suicide watch. Sometimes, however, gamers make a grievous error in judgment and commit what some may call gaming’s cardinal sin: selling their entire gaming collection. I’m talking games, consoles, controllers, memory cards, boxes, booklets, strategy guides, the works, all gone in the blink of an eye. What in the hell could possibly cause a dedicated gamer to sell one of his most prized possessions?  Well my fellow gamers, all it took for me was a (ex-)girlfriend who didn't understand video games.

I won’t go into too much detail (mostly because I've repressed a lot of that fateful time in my life), but after some major convincing, I put my entire collection up for sale on eBay, only saving my Sega Genesis. Here’s the summary of what I lost: my original GameBoy and GameBoy Color with peripherals and games (mostly Pokémon), an SNES complete in box with multiple games including Earthbound and Super Mario RPG, a Nintendo 64 complete in box with multiple games, a PS1 with multiple games including FF7 and FF Tactics, and finally, a PS2 complete in box with multiple games and peripherals.

I’m going to let that sink in a moment. Just think about that. For anyone reading this post with an extensive collection of games and consoles, imagine pouring hundreds, maybe thousands of hours into them across 16 years of your life (or more), then one day letting it all go. Can you put a price on all those memories, all those gaming marathons, all those friendly (or not-so-friendly) multiplayer shooter matches? Apparently I could, and it came to a whopping total of $350.
I can actually hear you all facepalming right now.
This is my gaming shame, and I will never live it down, no matter how hard I try. In a moment of fleeting yet complete and monumental idiocy, I practically gave away a large portion of my childhood, something that had been with me for as long as I could remember. That collection meant so much more to me than the sum of its plastic parts. It contained memories of gaming with my father and it was a welcome escape from the real world when it seemed too much to handle. Hell, it helped develop motor skills that I use every damn day to avoid car accidents or getting hit in the face with a volleyball. And it’s gone…all gone.

Over the years, as I bought new consoles and slowly integrated into the adult world, gaming became less of a hardcore hobby and more of a passing interest. Initially, I thought this was because I was just “growing up”, becoming more mature and thus too old for video games. Now, looking back I know I was sorely mistaken. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but I seriously believe that the day I sold off my collection, a small piece of me died. It changed me as a person and a gamer. I had practically sold my gaming soul, and for what? To make a few extra bucks for a girlfriend who obviously didn't understand who I was (FYI, I ditched her ass less than a month later, but the damage was already done). For the next few years I was content with my Xbox 360, but the fond memories of Super Mario RPG, Earthbound, Ocarina of Time, and Final Fantasy IX still crept into my mind, haunting me. Those thoughts were always there, reminding me of my sins even if I was initially too ignorant to acknowledge them.

Fast forward a few years’ time and the soul-crushing weight of the real world had done a pretty thorough job of making me miserable. Sure, I had a job (which is a lot in today’s recession) and it paid well, but something was still missing; something was always missing. It took me nearly two years after graduating college to realize what that was. One day when I was feeling particularly miserable, I actually physically sat down and mapped out what I loved, what I was passionate about. One thing stood out above the rest, something that had been there before I had started school all the way through two college degrees – video games. In this instance, the light bulb didn't just click on: it straight up smacked me in the face. I love, and always have loved, video games.

It was at that moment that I knew what I had to do. I had to shrug off the weight of the world, if only just enough to free myself to start gaming again. Once that was done, it would be time to right wrongs and start building that retro collection again. Sure it would take a lot of time, and even more money (seriously, have you seen the price of retro games these days!?), but it would be absolutely worth it to regain that piece of myself I had lost so long ago. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise that I sold all those games in the past, for without them I may have never figured out what was missing in my life and what I was passionate about – who knows?! Whatever the case may be, I know two things for certain: no matter what happens in my life, I am a gamer and will always need video games to keep me at my happiest, and if a girlfriend ever suggests selling your game collection, well, that’s okay – none of us liked her anyway.

[Ed Note: Graduated Gamer understands that not all girlfriends/wives hate video games. I know this for a fact, because I've found a pretty fantastic Graduated Gamergirl who loves gaming and understands that it’s a part of who I am, which is a lucky man.]

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews Captain Novolin

This review is going to be an issue for me because it’s going to be a fine dance between ripping a bad game and trying not to alienate a large group of people. That group of people would be diabetics, and the reason is because I reviewed the horridly designed and tackily named Captain Novolin.

For those of you unfamiliar with this game, Captain Novolin was created by the drug company Novo Nordisk who manufactured Novolin-brand insulin. Now the premise is, on the surface, admirable on the part of this multi-billion dollar corporation: use video games to teach kids with diabetes to eat healthy, stay active, and avoid pitfalls that can lead to unsafe blood glucose levels. However, using the name of your brand of insulin in the game title sort of starts us off on the wrong foot – even 7-Up named their game “Cool Spot” after the mascot, not the product (although I guess having an insulin hormone as your mascot would be sort of weird, huh?).

Anyway, back to the purpose of this game. It was intended to be used as a way for children with diabetes to not only learn how to control it, but also teach their friends about the disease in the form of a video game. However, all these good vibes immediately go out the window as soon as you start playing this tripe.
The game starts out silly enough, with the mayor captured by an evil alien who has also unleashed enemies in the forms of sugary foods. Their goal is to take over the world, but worst of all is the mayor is running low on insulin and you must get to him! Let’s get this straight – a small town mayor might die and that takes slight priority over saving the Earth? Sounds legit, let’s do it.
However, before you even get to the action, Captain Novolin needs to get tips from some terrifying renderings of humans in a cartoon world. One is apparently some nurse from the parts of hell where they keep clowns and those people from Soundgarden’s video for “Black Hole Sun”. Seriously, she’s scarier than any of the donuts or sugary drinks you’ll face later in the game: 

Are we sure she’s not the alien trying to enslave all of humanity? 
Dear God those eyes are burning a hole into my very soul!
Simply terrifying. Anyway, before you go after Blubberman (the creative name for our nemesis) and save the world rescue the mayor, you have to go through some trivia about managing your diabetes. This is where the game finally integrates the educational aspects with the gameplay. Before each stage you have a grocery list of what you should eat to maintain healthy blood glucose levels. Oh, and you have to shove a needle into your veins…

I have yet to fight a single bad guy, and I have had to 1) memorize some healthy foods to eat, 2) stare down a clown-nurse form the bowels of hell, and 3) awkwardly inject an electronic needle of insulin into my body. Yea, that’ll make your diabetes less awkward to explain to your friends:

“Hey Jimmy, let’s play Super Mario Kart!”
“Sorry Tommy, I gotta take my electronic insulin and fight donuts. Wanna watch?”
[In case you’re wondering, Jimmy no longer has friends.]
Now granted, you never actually see the injection of insulin, but the thought of it in a game like this for children is just a bit weird. Also, how do we know that’s really insulin and not heroine or something worse in that bottle? You just can’t trust satanic nurses like you used to.
Finally after the after-school special Captain Novolin is ready to kick some ass! To be honest, our hero looks like he could maybe be a badass. Sure he’s got a perpetual dopey grin on his face, but he’s ripped and looks like he’d do well in a fight. Here are your controls: walk and jump.

No punching. No kicking. No magic, or flying, or laser vision, or injecting enemies with “insulin”. You can walk along the road, and jump. Jumping is your best weapon as most of your enemies come at you in a straight line from the side of the screen. Still, I guess I can get over the fact that our world-saving hero is just some ripped dude who has diabetes and can jump really high (hell, for all we know Mario has diabetes and he’s chubby), but what I can’t get over is how he simply dies by touching food. It’s not like the food is jumping down his throat or anything, it’s just coming into contact with him. Don’t let that milkshake touch you three times, or you’ll collapse facedown into the gutter like a drunk – just like real life.

Honestly, at this point, I was beyond caring about any redeeming qualities anymore. The graphics were sub-par at best with bland backgrounds and repetitive character design, the “action” was non-existent, and on top of all that, the game was extremely difficult. Jumping was unresponsive and, if not timed just right, would cause you to come crashing down on your enemies, and although the enemies followed patterns, you were too concerned with not eating too much bread to see that box of sweets barrel down on top of you. But honestly, with a game this bad, the two best words you can see are Game Over.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t beat Captain Novolin, but can you blame me? I’m not a child, I’m not diabetic, and I’m not used to playing terrible games. I know that the game was created to help children, and I can’t fault anyone who made this game with that in mind (except for Novo Nordi$k who we know made thi$ to pu$h their brand of in$ulin). However, I doubt this game did anything more than terrify children and make them question their parent’s love for them (“Why would you make my play this, mommy?”).
I normally don’t do a rating system, but since I wrote this for Review A Bad Game Day, I gave it a score of 2/10. I would normally award it no points (and ask God to have mercy on its soul), but somebody has to think of the children. Please, for the sake of your health, stay away from this game.

[Note: Graduated Gamer has nothing against people with diabetes, just terrible video games.]

Monday, August 05, 2013

Olde Tyme Review - Super Metroid

There are many games in this world that are considered true classics, games that are on everybody’s “must-play” list, which I have not played. Part of this is because I had to use my own hard-earned paper route money to buy video games growing up (the only exception was Christmas when I usually got two games in my stocking). Now that I’ve got a steady job that pays more than tips, my first task is to finally play games that everyone has been raving about for the last 20 years.

The first game on the list is Super Metroid, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to create a video review. But not just any review would do for such a classic. I’m happy to bring you the first ever Graduated Gamer Olde Tyme Review! I hope you enjoy watching it as much as I enjoyed making it.


Friday, August 02, 2013

Mona Tifa Smile: How Final Fantasy 7 Changed the Way I View Video Games

I've been a gamer since I was old enough to hold a controller. Growing up with a brother 13 years my senior who loved video games, I’d argue that it was my destiny. I worshiped my brother, and while he didn't often share, I was almost always present when he was having one of his marathon gaming sessions. No matter how much he pleaded with my parents to make me stop bugging him, I was ever the proverbial fly on the wall. I vividly remember watching him play through fantastic games like Civilization, Wing Commander, and the original Final Fantasy; and while I was too young to fully understand the nuances of what I was watching, I knew that it was for me. Those lifelong synapses were starting to strengthen. Endorphin receptors were firing. I was hooked.

When my brother left for college in the early 90’s, I inherited his plethora of video games. The ball was finally in my court, and I could game to my heart’s content. Unfortunately, I was still very young at the time, so I tended to gravitate towards games like Sonic the Hedgehog and Oregon Trail, simple games that my juvenile mind could easily grasp. I didn't dare to challenge myself with more complex games; I had nobody there to guide me down that more difficult yet more rewarding path. Unsurprisingly, the status quo started to take over. Years passed. Then Christmas of ’97 came, and the benevolent ignorance of my mother changed everything.

Believe it or not, I still remember opening my gift from her that year. By this time, I was 12 years old and had a PS1 to my name, so I was acutely aware of each of the wrapped packages under the tree that had the telltale boxy shape of a PS1 game. One in particular looked much thicker than normal. My interest was piqued at the prospect of a multi-disc game. By the time Christmas morning finally came, I was practically bouncing off the walls in anticipation. I immediately pounced to claim my prize, like some sort of predatory beast. “I went to Best Buy and asked the guy what the most popular game was,” my mom explained as I tore off the wrapping. “I hope you like it!”

Quite a few questions flooded into my head the moment I finally saw the cover. ‘Why are there holes in that huge sword?’ ‘Is that a building or some kind of massive robot?’ ‘Is that some kind of Japanese writing?’ It was immediately clear to me that this wasn't the type of game that I had grown accustomed to-- these were most definitely not the droids that I was looking for. Because of this, overwhelming all of the minutiae running through my head was one main thought: ‘Well this is disappointing.’

After the Christmas morning festivities died down, I decided that I would at least give this odd game a shot. At least then I wouldn't have to lie to appease my mother when she inevitably asked if I had tried the new game yet.  Little did I know, the way that I viewed video games as a whole was about to be turned completely and irrevocably on its ear.

Being 12 at the time, I couldn't quite put into words why that first playthrough was such a landmark event for me. Even now at 27, it’s a herculean task to articulate the feelings I had about Final Fantasy 7, especially in 1,500 words or less. Only very recently have I realized that one of the main reasons I was so blown away by FF7 is because it was my first experience with a video game as art.

This discovery stems from a conversation I recently had with a friend about what, exactly, constitutes art. The conversation was so stimulating that I felt compelled afterwards to sit down and codify my exact criteria for defining art. I came up with four criteria that must be met:

1. Art must be visually or aurally striking.
2. Art must be a physical thing that someone created. (i.e. nature cannot be art)
3. Art must evoke strong emotions.
4. These emotions have to stem from something beyond the superficial. (e.g. the work leads you to a deeper truth or it tells a story in subtext)

Visually, of course, I had never seen a game like Final Fantasy 7 before. From the jump, the art direction of Yusuke Naora was utterly breathtaking. Be it the incredible level of detail in the different environments or the perfectly rendered full-motion video segments, the visual elements of the game consistently left me in complete awe. I remember after first playing through the Junon Harbor event, I had to reload my old save and call my dad in to make him watch the FMV of Sapphire Weapon attacking the Mako Cannon. I distinctly remember thinking “I can’t believe video games have come this far.” In perfect balance with the graphics was the amazing soundtrack by Nobuo Uematsu. From the delicate melody of Aerith’s theme, to the tumult and soaring crescendo of Cloud’s theme, to the campy beat of Costa del Sol, the music always managed to frame and magnify the adventure. But, while the visuals and audio may have been striking, that wasn't the reason we all grew to love the game.

The real jewel of Final Fantasy 7, the thing that truly makes it memorable – truly makes it a piece of art - is the story. This story had everything you could possibly want: self-discovery, friendship, romance, sacrifice, revenge, Moogles, psychotic villains, redemption, saving the world, and even a little bit of cross-dressing. Over the course of 40+ hours, I got to really know and care about the characters. I grew to legitimately care about their well-being. When Sephiroth plunged his Masamune through Aerith’s chest, I felt like I had been stabbed in the back as well. I was shocked: How could this video game let me grow to care about this character and then in an instant take her away from me? This had never happened to me before; I had gotten far too used to controlling expendable characters. I never really cared much what happened to Sonic or random X-Wing/TIE Fighter pilot or Earthworm Jim or Jacques Cartier. In other video games I had played, the story was always an afterthought for me – nothing more than a technicality that allowed the game to exist. I cared about the objectives and parameters of my mission, not why I was on it.

Final Fantasy 7 changed that paradigm for me. Coated in honey by the soundtrack and visuals, the story was no longer the bitter pill I had to swallow to get to the good stuff. It became the good stuff. There were elements of the characters that I could actually relate to for the first time in a video game. Of course I wasn't having materia stolen from me in my day-to-day life, but the 12 year old me could relate to the characters on some levels. Deep down, Cloud was just a guy struggling to form his identity; Tifa cared deeply about someone, but was unsure if they would ever love her back; Barrett was someone who had to learn how to funnel his desire for vengeance into something positive; Cait Sith felt crushed between what was expected of him and what he knew was right; Red XIII deeply resented his father, only to learn later that parents are motivated by sacrifice and love whether we can see it or not. As a young child just breaching into puberty, these were all very relevant concepts to my day-to-day life. To some degree, all of these concepts are still very relevant to my life today.

And that’s really what art is all about, isn't it? It’s about looking deep into what somebody else put their heart and soul into and seeing a reflection of your own life. It’s about a medium transcending into more than its base parts. Even though I didn't know it at the time, that’s what made FF7 so special to me: it taught me that, instead of just being simple and amusing diversions, video games could be so much more. They could be epic adventures that would take you not only to distant corners of alien worlds, but also to corners of your own mind that you didn't know existed. They could be a lens that allows you to focus on and learn about yourself. They could be a great forum where the different parts of your psyche could be heard. They could be art.

Andrew Sands is a part-time gamer from Madison, WI. When not saving digital worlds, he can be found playing sand volleyball, attending Renaissance Faires, and rolling d20s.