Monday, October 28, 2013

My Hate-Hate Relationship with Horror Games

October is well under way, and if you’re like me and live in the Midwest United States, this means a number of things: leaves changing colors, apple cider & donuts, and of course, Halloween (okay, that one isn't exactly Midwest-specific). For one of the most beautiful times of the year, October has the (mis?)fortune of being mostly associated with the grim and the grisly.

As a result, everything that happens during the month of October is tied to some horror theme or another. You've got your monster movie marathons, new scary releases in everything from movies to books to theatrical performances, and of course, there are your survival/horror video games. If I were to pick a genre that I liked the least and played the least, it would be this one. I can’t exactly pinpoint why this came to be, but when everyone was “enjoying” being scared to death by Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I was content playing Harvest Moon 64 or Final Fantasy IX.

Do you like scary video games? My answer is always "no".

Still, it is intriguing that I've nearly avoided an entire genre of games over 20+ years of gaming. When I think about it, I can only name a few titles that I've played that might be considered a part of the survival and/or horror genre: Friday the 13th, Devil May Cry, and Bioshock. Even those are a stretch, especially when there are truly terrifying games out there, from the critically acclaimed Dead Space, to the indie and just as chilling One Late Night. While I proclaim my inexperience with the horror genre with a small amount of pride, I’m also aware that to truly be a gamer, I should probably experience all types of games, at least to give them a fair shake.

But seriously, why don’t I like survival/horror games? It’s a good question, and I don’t have a straight answer, only a few theories. Growing up I had a very bad experience with the horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. I was 12 when I saw the movie for the first time, and it scared me so much that I had trouble sleeping for weeks. I was convinced that Freddy Krueger was going to kill me in my dreams and as a result became quite gun-shy (no-pun intended) around horror flicks. While I soon got over this fear and now thoroughly enjoy horror movies, I still find the idea of playing games in the same vein a little too much to handle.

I do have an idea that for me, my fear comes down to an emotional attachment in gaming. While watching a movie, I’m okay with some people dying – hell, if the victim is a total idiot I can claim that they “deserve it” and even root for the killer. They’re actors on a screen and I have no control over their fates whatsoever; for me it’s a completely bystander experience where I feel safely removed from whatever terror is plaguing the screen. However, when I’m gaming I actually control what happens on the screen. My actions have a direct effect on a character’s fate, whether good or bad. This creates an emotional attachment, and the character becomes somewhat of an avatar. It’s this connection that is possibly why I have a tough time playing scary games. I know they’re meant to make players jump and I know that I’m not in any physical danger, but it still feels all too real to me. It’s more personal and I even find myself getting goosebumps and chills just thinking about playing games like Outlast <shudder>.

This is me after playing horror games for any amount of time.

However, being a gamer at heart and now a writer/blogger in the gaming community, the time was bound to come when I would have to succumb to the pressures of October’s theme and delve into a genre I've done well to avoid. For the month of October, I’m going to finally immerse myself into the horror/survival genre. I plan on reviewing at least two games before the end of the month: Silent Hill and Maere - When Lights Die. The first will be tough enough to deal with, but the second may just be the end of me, as there’s a good possibility that I’ll be playing it with the Oculus Rift system (I’ll likely be updating my living will just in case thing go terribly wrong). Until then, I’ll just continue to mentally prepare myself for the most terrifying gaming experience of my life. What in the hell have I gotten myself into?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Game Series as High School Cliques

Okay, interesting twist time. We all know about the stereotypical Hollywood high school cliques seen in cheesy 80's and 90's movies. There's always a jock, a nerd, a skater, etc. Well here's my take on which video game series I think best fit those cliché high school cliques.

Jock – Grand Theft Auto

They’re the coolest kids in school, beloved by almost everyone even though they get into trouble from time to time. Sure they pick on other cliques and can be offensive, but they’re just so good at what they do. Whether you love or hate them, you still respect them from taking the team to the state championship…or something like that.

Geek – Lego Series

If there’s ever a series that has its hand in nearly every major player of geek-culture, it’s the Lego series of games. Batman, DC Universe, Star Wars, Marvel Universe, Indiana Jones – if it’s got a following of geeks ready to pummel you with useless facts that nobody else knows or cares about, Lego will make a game about it. I’m still waiting for my Lego: Doctor Who by the way. MAKE IT HAPPEN! 

Skater – Sonic the Hedgehog

He’s fast, he’s hip, and he doesn't give a damn that you like Mario more than him – he’s gonna keep living fast and hard and listening to Sonic Youth on his Walkman (see what I did there?). Seriously, the tennis shoes, the spiked hair, and the demeanor just scream Skater, and frankly, it’s perfect, especially because the sole purpose of everyone’s favorite blue blur was to bring attitude to the video game world.

Hipster – Minecraft

No matter how many clones released that are predicated on creative world design and a little bit of survival, Minecraft will always be the game to say they were doing it long before the rest of the posers. Like a hipster creates a look that we know took a long time to assemble yet they claim took no effort at all, so too does Minecraft have that feel of beautiful gameplay and simplistically stunning graphics that look as though they took little to no effort to create. When everyone is playing games like this in the future through our implanted brain chip virtual reality simulators, we’ll look back and appreciate Minecraft for making what was once uncool cool again.

Scenester – Saints Row

Oh Saints Row – always eager to fit in yet somehow only getting labeled as a GTA-wannabe. We know that you’re an open-world game, but GTA made it popular first. And those crazy antics and insane weapons? Well, sure they’re fun and all but it just seems like you’re trying too hard. Honestly, we appreciate you for what you are, but we simply cannot ignore the fact that you’re a poser that will never live up to the hype and awesomeness of GTA.

Prep – Final Fantasy

If there is any series out there more concerned with keeping up appearances, I haven’t found it. When you've been around as long as Final Fantasy and are known for not only setting trends but also destroying them altogether with your style and gameplay, you’re bound to be under a lot of pressure to do it time and again with every game you release. Sure, they’re always a candidate for prom king GOTY, and people always get excited about what new clothes innovations they release, but sometimes they don’t live up to expectations.

Nerd – World of Warcraft

I know I’m delving into generalizations and stereotypes here, but when South Park rips on your fanbase for being overweight, basement-dwelling social lepers, well, if the shoe fits… Seriously though, for a game as massive as World of Warcraft where people sink not just hours or days, but weeks of their life into it, you’re bound to be compared to the cliché nerd with a lack of fashion and social skills that make you a normal, contributing member of the gaming social ladder. Regardless, even if this offends WoW players, they’ll never read this because they’re too busy raiding or whatever the hell it is they do in that game.

Mean Girls – Call of Duty

Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Call of Duty? Seriously, it’s the series that walks into a room and everyone immediately hates them for one reason or another. However, with over 120 million games sold, the franchise has the clout to back-up its claim as the “popular” kids at school. Still, no matter how popular they are, they’re obnoxious in the way they belittle everyone else for not being them.

Emo – Metal Gear

Seriously, is there a more complicated and long-winded story line than that of Metal Gear? Every time I read up on the canon I feel like I reading a script of a damn soap opera. The series itself is said to not take itself too seriously, but then it goes ahead and creates lengthy, emotionally driven trailers for their upcoming game. The only things missing from this series is a soundtrack featuring Dashboard Confessional and Hinder (please God no).

Well there you have it - my take on video game series as stereotypical high school cliques. Have any other suggestions? Agree or disagree with my choices? Feel free to let me know on Twitter or in the comments below.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Games/Series I Haven't Played, But Want To

Having been gaming for over 20+ years now, there are certain games/series that I either haven't had time to play or simply forgot about in the shuffle of my backlog/current obsessions of the time (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy VII). Thinking about this the other day inspired me to write down a list of those game/series that I haven't played but still wish to play some day. Away we go...


I know there are only two games in this series, but with fans clamoring every year for a third installment it must be something worthwhile. I was going through a huge “RPG Only” phase when the series was hitting it big so I missed the hype train. Still, I’ve been eyeing The Orange Box for years now and one day I’ll suck it up and just buy the damn thing so I can not only play my first Half-Life game, but also Portal for the first time.

Animal Crossing
The main reason I never played this adorable series is because I haven’t owned a Nintendo console since the N64. I certainly wanted a GameCube when it released, but I was so obsessed with my PS2 at the time and had a ton of games for that system already, I couldn’t justify buying another system. However, the game has such a huge following of fans that it cannot be ignored, and the cutesy homemaker vibe reminds me so much of Harvest Moon (a personal favorite series) that it’s been on my list for quite some time to try.

Metal Gear Solid
This is the series that I’m most disappointed in myself for not playing. Now I have actually played a game in the series, MGS2: Sons of Liberty, but other than that I’ve been watching from the sidelines wondering what it’s like to play. I do own the HD collection for the Xbox 360, so I have the opportunity to rectify this situation, but these games require such a commitment I think I’ll have to actually plan time to play them (maybe even take some vacation time). With MGS5 on the way, I may have to expedite this process a bit so I don’t feel completely left out.

Assassin’s Creed

A month ago this series wouldn’t have been on my list, but after reading some reviews of the previous titles and watching vids for Black Flag, I became a believer in the series. I also wasn’t knowledgeable about the multiplayer portions of the game, but all it took were some Let’s Plays for me to get hyped, and that’s saying a lot as I’m not a huge multiplayer gamer. I honestly don’t have a lot of knowledge about the series except that people who’ve played it absolutely love it. I did recently get Assassin’s Creed 2 for free from XBL Gold, so I could always fire that up….

Mega Man
That are there, like 30 Mega Man games? Seriously, I’ve been gaming for 20+ years and I haven’t played a single game starring the Blue Bomber. I think at the time Mega Man was getting big I was too focused on Mario and Sonic to care. Granted, the series is notorious for its unbalanced difficulty which didn’t fit into a typical 7 year old’s gaming circle (unless they liked rage quitting, which I did not). I really don’t have an excuse for this one, but Mega Man is one of the biggest video game icons ever and it’d be a shame to live my whole life without ever playing one of his games. Plus, the games have a reputation for awesome bosses, and I do love some creative bosses.


It’s a JRPG series with a focus on story, awesome music, and massive parties from which to select playable characters. It’s everything I love in a game, yet somehow I’ve avoided playing it up to this point in my life. However, Suikoden III sits on my shelf as we speak, looking oh so sexy and just begging to be played.

There you have it – the top games/series that I haven’t played but would one day love to. Let me know what you think, if you have any suggestions, and feel free to share your own games/series you’ve never played but would one day love to.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Graduated Gamer Reviews: Rockstar Table Tennis

Some time ago, during the Xbox Live Ultimate Game Sale Review Extravaganza (official name), I was intrigued by Rockstar Table Tennis, so much so that I decided to give it space on my hard drive. This isn't my typical fare, especially for a sports genre, but it had a few factors going for it: 1) it was $3, 2) it's by Rockstar, and 3) I love playing table tennis. Thus, I caved and bought it before the July 3rd short sale was over. Now, this game is no longer on uber sale, but it's still worth a review in my mind, so consider it a bonus level or something.

Now to be honest right up front, this game is nothing special. It won't wow you with graphics or story, and it doesn't even have a campaign mode, a mainstay for almost any sports game today. However, what R* Table Tennis lacks in depth, it makes up for in pure entertainment value. R* did a fantastic job crafting a game that is easy to pick up and play, yet requires practice and patience to master. By the end of my 5+ hours of playing both offline and online, this huge NHL and NCAA fan found himself addicted to a game about ping pong.

The biggest draw of this game is the gameplay itself. You can certainly jump right in and start mashing buttons to figure out how to land a sweet smash shot, but with the amazing tutorial the Rockstar created for the game I recommend you start there. It took me no more than 10 minutes to run through the entire tutorial and feel extremely comfortable with the controls. I knew precisely how to land a drop shot with the flick of a thumb stick, but also how to deftly return a smash shot, and it didn't feel tedious at all. This is exactly the sort of thing that can be the difference between a quickly thrown together game for profit and a game that wants you to take it seriously, even if it is a barely noticeable Olympic sport (est. 1988 - that's trivia for your brain).

Make it in that blue space and you just might get an achievement!

Granted, even after the tutorial you'll find yourself hitting the wrong shot once in a while. This has less to do with confusing controls (which are very straightforward), and more to do with the fast pace of the game (Remember that scene from Forrest Gump? Dial that back a bit and you've got it). You’ll eventually get the hang of your shot selection, but what I couldn't get the proper feel for was the player movement. You have a very finite space within which to move (i.e. – just more than the width of a ping pong table) but the motion of your player feels clunky, like his joints are locked in place. This leads to some missed returns when your player seems to refuse to move left fast enough. On the flip side, sometimes my player ranged too far in one direction even after I released the thumb stick, leading to me being extremely out of position.

However, the little quirks with player movement did not deter me from the best aspect of the game: its addictive nature. I would've never believed a table tennis game could be so competitive even against AI, but in the heat of a 30+ shot volley, you’ll find yourself tensing up, your every fiber yearning to win this point. The crowd gets into it, oh-ing and ah-ing with every skillful return and every anticipated smash shot. It helps you get more involved in the game, especially when the crowd screams your name like people would at Wimbledon. Perhaps it’s not realistic (I've never been to an actual table tennis match), but it accomplishes what it sets out to do: make you feel a part of the experience rather than a bystander.

Adding to the fun of this game are the player “personalities”. Each character has its own set of disappointed expressions, even going so far as to talk to themselves (“Get your head in the game!”), and when doing well I've never seen a cockier group of ping pong stars. Blowing on your “hot” paddle, fist pumping, and gesturing to the crowd is just a taste of what you’ll see characters do after a crucial point or a long volley won, and it’s just hilarious to watch in the context. Still, I even found myself doing a little trash talking, particularly when I smash a shot in my opponents face (literally, that can happen and it’s very satisfying).

There can be only one!

The game can be fairly forgiving, allowing your player to make pretty hard shots with ease and preventing you from accidentally hitting out shots (trust me, it doesn't feel cheap). But on the flip side, the game can also eat you alive with its unbalanced AI. Certain players are experts at a few things and average at others – my favorite playable character is very adept at accurately placing a ball, but he isn't going to ace anyone on his serves. This allows players to find a character that matches their preferences, but it can lead to mismatches in gameplay. For example, one character can offer up extremely hard and accurate serves, and if your player isn't good at returns you’ll be setting up your opponents for smash shots more than you’d like. While it’s easy to adjust to, it can be a major uphill battle to win a match with unbalanced match-ups.

I would like to say that the online component of the game is fantastic, but there just isn't much of a dedicated community out there. I spent 30 minutes trying to find match-ups online and only played two short matches. Also, the community skill set is very unbalanced, which is likely the result of older players lingering and newer players like myself joining because of the Ultimate Sale. Perhaps things will balance out in time, but for now it’s a crapshoot whether you’ll get a competitive match or get smoked – there’s almost no middle ground.

More trivia: in table tennis, China has more gold medals (24)
than the next best country has total (N. Korea - 18).

If you’re looking for a fun game to play with your friends or a nice way to kill some time online, Rockstar Table Tennis will fill that need well enough. The lack of a campaign mode won’t lead to any long-winded playing sessions, but the competitive nature of the game will suck you in and bring you back for more. There are plenty of unlockables in the game, from new arenas to shirts to players, but nothing really worthwhile in my opinions outside of trying to get a player that has better stats. I think it would have been a good idea if certain unlockables could improve your stats, like new paddles for better accuracy or goggles for slow time, to make you more likely to try to unlock everything. This may have made the game more arcade-y, but I think it would add a nice element to a game that otherwise doesn't give you more to do that play exhibitions and tournaments. Still, for $3 I think I found myself a great game to pick up from time to time, if for nothing than to watch my character fist pump after landing a nice smash shot in someone’s face.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

The End of Hardcore?

More like "Super Death 'N Death", amirite?!

I've never been called a “hardcore gamer”, and I’m not sure how to feel about that. On one hand, I feel that my dedication to gaming throughout the last 22 years of my life warrants recognition as hardcore. On the other hand, while I've played games for a long time, I've always been a bit of a casual gamer, one who picks up a game, plays it through once, and then sets it aside for a long time (or forever). There are obvious exceptions I can point to (Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, and Starfox 64), but overall I’m not someone to attempt true mastery or 100% completion of every game which, to me, means a gamer is hardcore.

However, it seems that my definition may not accurately reflect the current generation of games and gamers, and it’s something that I’m not sure how to feel about. To me, beating Contra with only 3 lives, finding and destroying every ultimate weapon in FFVII, or getting a high score on a classic arcade cabinet like Joust is hardcore and would allow you to claim such a title. However, it seems things have changed dramatically from a world where simply beating a game could be considered hardcore (I’m looking at you Battletoads and Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts), to a world where pwning n00bs and insulting them about it makes you hardcore.

This led to a rage quit so epic when I was 8 that I haven't played the game since.

Now, even as I write this I know right away that this can be seen as an unfair assessment of the gaming landscape today. I’ll clarify that I am aware that there are games that still give the gamer a way to be completionists and try for high scores. I've played PacMan Championship Edition and I’m currently working on 100% on GTA V so I know this first-hand. Still, there’s something to be said about how achievements, trophies, and online multiplayers have warped people’s views of what makes someone “hardcore”. I even fell into the trap earlier of thinking that getting all achievements in a game would make me hardcore, only to be extremely dissatisfied with my experience. I found that I wasn't playing for fun, but rather playing to increase my Gamerscore so others would see it and think “wow, that dude’s gotta be a hardcore gamer”.

Certain games and series have been highly influential in what I see as the “end of hardcore” as I knew it in my youth. You probably saw this coming a mile away, but series like Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield have certainly changed the culture of what makes a hardcore gamer, especially in online multiplayer. I tried playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield 2 online with my dad on a few occasions, and I simply couldn't stand it. I’m not going to sit here and say that getting my ass handed to me was fun and didn't influence this feeling, but the biggest issue I had was the culture of gamers both on my team and not. It seemed that no matter what you did you weren't good enough. Even when I moved from dead last on my team to a respectable third in kills and points, I still felt like I was crap and more of a liability to my team. It didn't help that obscene insults and childish whining flew around more than bullets, and with that I decided that this wasn't the scene for me.

In my opinion, best played without a headset and/or on mute.

Still, there are millions of people out there that live and breathe those franchises and consider themselves hardcore, and anyone else that doesn't is a n00b (among other things). Does this make me any less of a gamer? Of course not. Does being a badass in those games make you hardcore? I don’t really know. Perhaps it does, just like collecting all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic the Hedgehog or unlocking every car and winning on all courses in Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec would be back in my day. Perhaps I’m just getting old and I want nothing more than to hold on to the nostalgia of the past where achievements were “Not Dying” and “Saving the Princess”. Perhaps I’m just yelling at kids to get off my lawn. I honestly don’t know anymore, so I’ll just say that to me the idea of “hardcore” is gone for me in today’s generation of games. It doesn't mean that it doesn't exist for the current generation of gamers, and one day they may feel the same as me, but I prefer to stick to high scores in arcades and the brutality of 16-bit side-scrollers to define my core as hard.