Category Archives: Games

Analog Gaming: The Cardboard Curtain

Hobby games are often called “Eurogames” because they are, for the most part, created, developed, produced, and sold in Europe. Even more specifically, they’re sometimes referred to as “German Games,” which makes sense when you hear the names of some of the most popular creators: Reiner Knizia (Tigris and Euphrates, plus a host of others), Klaus Teuber (The Settlers of Catan), Wolfgang Kramer (The Princes of Florence), Friedemann Friese (Power Grid), etc. This style of strategy game got its start in Europe and remains popular there; the worldwide industry convention is held in the fall in Essen, Germany.
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Analog Gaming: Relive the Exciting Days of Not Terribly Long Ago

One of the criticisms of American politics is that it’s been turned into a game, where the only concern is making the other side “lose” instead of trying to figure out what will be best for the country. What better way to examine this than to actually make a game out of American politics? And what better political event to make a game out of than the 2008 Obama/McCain election, with all its highs, lows, majesty, and mudslinging?

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Gaming at the End of the World: As the Hawk Flies

Rare is the person whose heart doesn’t harbor some deeply personal creative fantasy–be it writing the great American novel, transforming a run-down bit of parkland into a thing of beauty, or opening a small, meticulously managed movie theater. The vast majority of these dreams are destined to remain just that–objects of aspiration with no little to chance of fulfillment.

Occasionally, however, an individual will reach a point–such as having recently starred in one of the most successful action movies of all time–where he or she is in a position to make that fantasy become a reality. While there are many ways to spend that kind of creative capital, most sources agree that one should probably avoid bankrupting a major motion picture studio with a horrible trainwreck of a vanity project.

Even if the worst did occur, and one managed to blow $65 million on a subcontracted slice of cinematic fan fiction that ends up grossing less than a third of its cost, there should be no need to compound that shame by releasing a cruddy NES game to commemorate the event…

…yet that still managed to happen.

While the film version of Hudson Hawk offers a fascinating glimpse into both the dangers of creative megalomania and the limits of Bruce Willis’s imagination, Hudson Hawk: The Videogame turned out to be another generically awful side-scrolling platformer among the many shoveled into stores during the NES’s salad days. The one thing that set the Hudson Hawk game apart from its genre peers was its licensed link to one of the most notorious bombs in recent cinematic history, and it wore that albatross of misplaced optimism with the proud smirk of the truly oblivious…

…and when I say “smirk,” I mean that quite literally. The programming team at Ocean/Sony may have cut quite a few corners during the game’s development, but they didn’t skimp on capturing the title character’s smarmy swagger in full 8-bit glory. It’s all there, from the bitchin’ shades to the smug expression to the laughable attempt to mask a receding hairline — in short, the full package of forced coolness and tragic desperation that marked the Hudson Hawk phase of Bruce Willis’s career.

As for the game itself? I honestly can’t tell you, as the poor collision detection and shoddy jumping mechanics prevented me from completing the first level. (This also prevents me from reporting whether or not the game features a chiptunes version of “Swingin’ on a Star,” but I am perfectly OK with that.) What little I did play did appear to follow what passed for the movie’s plot. I’m not sure I recall the part of the film where Willis was savaged by a googly-eyed owl after getting chomped on the ass by a rabid dachshund…but then again my attention did tend to wander a bit whenever Andie MacDowell and David Caruso were onscreen.

Analog Gaming: Gateway Games

In the last column I had to burn down the village of American boardgaming in order to save it. With Monopoly off the table, I will now offer some alternatives for folks to try out. The criteria I have for these games were: (1) Easy to learn from the rulebooks. (2) Available for purchase. (3) No crazy complex rules or long play time. (4) Appropriate (within reason) for the entire family, from double-digit kids to Grandma. To find a store near you that sells these games, check The Game Store Database (but double-check results by calling first, as it seems to be a bit out of date.)

What you should replace Monopoly with depends on what you go to Monopoly for. With that in mind, here are some alternatives.

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Gaming at the End of the Universe

The recent installation of a home wireless network (motivated by my wife’s acquisition of a spiffy new netbook) put an end to two years of hotswapping our DSL modem between our PC and our Xbox 360. Prior to the upgrade, my online console gaming time was limited to specified, pre-arranged times so as not to deprive my better half of internet access. Now, however, I am free to game online to my heart’s content…providing the bandwidth isn’t being choked by a certain person streaming last week’s episode of High School Reunion upstairs.

The upgrade to wireless has given me a much better opportunity to explore the online components of many titles in my gaming library, both for the better (Ghostbusters) and the worse (Modern Warfare 2).  There was one game, though, with predominantly online components that I held back on fiddling around with, Sega’s 2006 MMORPG Phantasy Star Universe.

I bought a cheap used copy of PSU not long after I purchased my 360 console back in the spring of 2008.  I owned–and played the hell out of–both the PS2 version and its expansion back in the day.  As limited as the offline elements were, they did offer a colorful, anime-themed spin of Diablo’s loot-and-grind formula.  At the very least, having a copy of PSU for the 360 meant that I could indulge in periodic dungeon crawls whenever the mood struck me.  I ended up making it through half the story mode missions and unlocking the create-a-character free mode before realizing that the downloadable expansion was online (and paid subscription) only, losing interest and tucking the game on the far back end of the shelf.

My interest in Phantasy Star Universe was rekindled after it was announced that Sega was planning to shut down the PC and PS2 versions’ servers in a few weeks.  While the company restated their support for the 360 version, it seemed like a logical assumption that it was only a matter of time before that, too, closed up shop.  If I had any lingering morbid curiosity about what the MMO aspects of the game were like, I’d better cough up the ten-buck monthly fee and check them out now.

Thus was born Gideon…

…a human “fighgunner” (a subclass specializing in melee weapons and small arms) and my in-game avatar.

Having finalized his name and appearance slider options, the aspiring adventurer stepped forth into the Gurhal System to discover a once-thriving community fallen into terminal decline.  Having never played PSU online before, I can’t tell you how successful it may have been at its peak.  What I do know, however, is that of the twenty servers Sega maintains for the game, only two are actively populated at the present time–the one everyone tries to log into and the one players have to settle for on the rare occasions the popular one is at max capacity.

Finding a party in any of the regular mission lobbies is next to impossible, with the exception of the low-level intro missions where newbies cut their grinding teeth.  The majority of the players flock to the bonus-yield “event” missions for ad infinitum speedruns or simply hang out in the spaceport or Guardians’ HQ lobbies like so many chat-spamming day laborers.

Think of it as The Matrix, only with catgirls and set in a sci-fi iteration of Flint, Michigan.

Sega’s efforts to channel the players’ creativity have been in vain.  The tropical beach lobby intended to complement the introduction of swimwear costumes has been utterly desolate whenever I’ve passed though the area, as Speedo-wearing space elves find it much easier to public chat “UR SO GAY” to chicken-suited furries–excuse me, “beasts”–from the comfort of the spaceport stairwell.

I had a hard time figuring out how the in-game economy works, apart from the strange situation where legions of lobby hustlers either spend their gaming time hawking high-end items for insane prices or begging for handouts instead of actually embarking on missions.  Players are allowed to set up stores in their characters’ “rooms,” which in practice amounts to price cutting wars between absentee vendors operating with nothing even closely resembling a baseline.  (For example, one might be selling a rare weapon for 100k meseta, while another has it listed for 1.5m.)

If one has the patience to navigate Phantasy Star Universe‘s caption clouds of chat spam, there is a pretty solid and entertaining game underneath the entropic muck.  Solo play is a viable option for most regular missions, and it’s pretty easy finding a decent level-scaled party on the event mission boards.  As tempting and as tactically sound as it might be, though, I’d advise you to leave your headset unplugged (which is a sound protocol for playing any online console game).

I made the mistake of being drawn into player voicechat on two occasions.  The first time was by a pair of rather loud tweeners who were extremely fond of the f-bomb and casual homophobia.  The second time was by a feral pack of “doodz” whose preferred topics of conversation were:

1. Hot Pockets
2. The NBA
3. The hygiene of Mexicans, Russians, and Italians
4. Each other’s sex lives

Of course, going in with you headset unplugged is no guarantee against uncomfortable moments, as I discovered when I leveled up and the party leader’s congratulatory chat macro included an ASCII fist and the message “WHITE POWER!”  (I considered reporting the player for a TOS violation, but then decided every minute he spends pretending to be a magic-using wolf-person is a minute not spent burning down synagogues.)

This is the way a virtual world ends;  not with a bang, but with a neo-Nazi discussing knives with a ten year old ADD case as their Harajuku reject avatars team up to bring down a giant two headed dragon.

Mario Spelled Backwards is Oiram

In an article for Philadelphia “Family Newspaper” The Bulletin (no relation), Susan Brinkman makes several video games of varying degrees of popularity sound about a thousand times more awesome than they actually are by insisting that the games contain dangerously irreligious themes.

• Tecmo’s Deception: Invitation To Darkness (Playstation) – Players “make an unholy pact and sell their soul to Satan in exchange for power” with the object of the game being to ensure the resurrection of Satan and obtain his power. (This game is rated “T” for teens.)

• Nocturne (Playstation 2): A game in which the hero (a demon) destroys the three Archangels St. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, then goes on to destroy God.

• Shadow Hearts (Playstation 2): The hero uses his power to intercept and destroy God and “save the world.” (Some games in this series are rated “T”.)

• Dragon’s Age Origins (Playstation 3/Xbox 360): The game revolves around the story of God going mad and cursing the world. A witch attacks believers and players can “have sex” with her in a pagan act called “blood magic” so she can “give birth to a god.” Another scenario allows players to have sex with a demon in exchange for a boy’s soul.

Curiously absent from the list of problems with the games are interminable cut scenes and hundreds of hours of pointless level grinding.

Frankly, we’re just pleasantly relieved to find a conservative objection to Dragon Age that doesn’t involve complaints about gay elves.

Analog Gaming: Not Monopoly

When I tell people I read comics, the response I get is usually, “Like Batman?” And you know which (BAM! POW!) Batman they’re thinking of.

Likewise, when I tell people I play boardgames, I often get, “Like Monopoly?”

However, I’m not sure which Monopoly they’re thinking of. Are they thinking of Star Wars Monopoly? I am, after all, something of a Star Wars fan. Of course, I also like comics, too, so it could be the Justice League or Marvel Comics Monopoly. Maybe they’re thinking of Historical Boston Monopoly. Or Coca-Cola Monopoly. Or Hard Rock Cafe Monopoly. Or one of any of the 1794 (and counting) licensed and unlicensed versions of this dreadful game. Whichever one they mean, the answer is no. Not like Monopoly.

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