the Horn Farm Paste Mob

Guitar Hero III (PS2)

The whole game has a Woodstock ’99 feel to it– both the desperation with which it imitates some of its predecessors’ details, and the creepy, mindless sexism. Missing punctuation on the between-song jokes, a dumber-looking lead singer, constant in-game advertising, bonus tracks that I assume labels paid to have included… almost nothing about Guitar Hero III fails to insult its audience. The only improvement is in gameplay on the higher difficulty levels, where profuse three-finger chords and variation in level design provide a lot more fun than Guitar Hero II did. Fun matters more than anything else, but I’m not sure it matters more than EVERYTHING else.

And, inexplicably, the final battle was designed with the same flaw Guitar Hero II’s finale had: it starts with a section that’s too easy, followed by one that’s too hard. So you end up playing the boring part over and over again, punctuated with moments of intense frustration cut short by failure.

Toward the end of the original Guitar Hero, one of the semi-randomized load screens said something like “At some point, you may want to consider getting a real guitar.” This struck me as graceful, even affectionate. Guitar Hero III only makes one reference to the juncture between game and reality, but it’s this: “Real guitar players don’t play sitting down on the couch.” Ha! Take that, person who just gave us $50!

So I hear Rock Band is supposed to be pretty good.


Lumines Plus (PS2)

I played Lumines last summer on J’s PSP while I was recovering from an awful sunburn and it was great. This is apparently identical, except that a few skins were removed (one I loved, one I hated, and one I can’t remember) and several more added, maybe from Lumines II. One of those new skins, Tiny Piano, consistently ends my game– I think usually I’ve staggered on to the next skin, but it was Tiny Piano that did me in.

And there’s the one big problem with Lumines: its genius is in taking a falling-block puzzle game and making it FEEL qualitatively different for each level you complete. New background music, new colors, new block design, new sound effects. I certainly care about these ‘skins’, these cosmetic changes to the game, more than I’ve ever cared about choosing a skin for any program on my computer, and I see Firefox a lot more often than I see my Playstation. But these skins are so different from one another that I want them to be rewards for doing different things, like the variation in levels with Katamari Damacy or the merit badges in Fizzball (whose design was so good that I kept playing even after it was clear that it wouldn’t get any harder and was thus essentially boring). Instead, you get new skins for doing the same thing over and over, better and better.

If you haven’t even seen this, though, you have to.


the other

A few genres of arcade game that apparently thrived in Japan at some point but which I don’t remember seeing much, if at all, over here:

– Mahjong games. Not surprising that the US didn’t take to them, but these were REALLY big. Look through any list of arcade machines that tries to be at all comprehensive and you can probably find dozens of mahjong games without breaking a sweat, including some that use mahjong tiles for variant purposes. (One of those, I guess, Americans did embrace: “Shanghai”, the pair-matching solitaire with mahjong tiles.) Also, hanafuda games.

– Qix clones where your reward for capturing territory is pictures of naked women. Possibly these had some success in America, just not in the kind of establishments where I spent my quarters. Even with game design ramped up to mid-90s quality, I really don’t find Qix entertaining, though I can see how it’s a natural fit for the niche. One of these games made me choose among photos of male action heroes at first– Rambo, Robocop, Indiana Jones et al.– and I thought I might have stumbled on some kind of unlicensed beefcake fan-art game, but no, I was picking which character “I” was. It doesn’t seem like Peter Weller spends a lot of time scraping away the top layers of giant nudie canvases in real life… maybe Mel Gibson, though.

– Bubble Bobble clones. We did get the original, of course, but I had no idea back then that it spawned a whole subgenre. The mechanics got more ‘reasonable’ as they went, as in the diet-themed game where you fire food at enemies until they become rotund enough to float away, or Snow Bros, where you form enemies into giant snowballs. (As I found out a few years ago when emulation became an easy way to play obscure games, the second Snow Bros game was called “Snow Bros 2 – With New Elves”. Try to think of an entertainment franchise that wouldn’t be improved by giving one installment the subtitle “With New Elves”. You can’t do it.)

– Fantasy-themed scrolling shooters. I know I played Dragon Spirit a little when I was younger, but the rest of these are unfamiliar. These also seem more willing to move into new design territory; one fantasy shooter adds racing elements, another one is kind of a puzzle game.

Sometimes you want a bestseller list, sometimes you want a bargain bin.


Guitar Hero II (PS2)

– More songs.
– Three-finger chords are now occasionally used.
– Training Mode lets you practice just the hard parts of songs.
– The levels are now divided into four regular songs and an ‘encore’, a fifth song you can only play once you’ve beaten the others. This adds a little drama.
– Two-player mode is now fun; you can play different parts (lead, rhythm, bass) and/or play at different difficulty levels.

– Almost nothing else has changed. This feels like an expansion pack, not a sequel.
– Freed by success (credibility? money?) to license the songs they wanted, the makers used a bunch of grunge and hair metal, killing most of the variety that made the original Guitar Hero fun to play even if you didn’t like the music. The first game’s hardest songs included some very fast strumming, some hard chord-jumping, some solos, and some finger-twisting blues noodling; Guitar Hero II only really cares about speed. And doing scales. When I realized how much of the game consisted of playing virtual scales as fast as possible, I was reminded of all those alarmists warning that video games would train a generation to enjoy drudge work as long as they got their blinky lights in return.
– It’s too easy. Playing at the highest difficulty, I got the top rating (5 stars) on about half the songs my first time through. Yeah, I’m pretty good at video games, but you know what? I’m not that good. More to the point, anyone else who played all the way through the first game is starting out about as good as I am. I got 100% on one of the bonus tracks the first time I played it. Come on.
– Within a given song, even if you like the song, even if you enjoy the particular skills being tested, the repetition can become mind-numbing. I’m currently stuck on the final boss, which happens to be far and away the dullest song in the game. And the longest, I think.

I have a lot less spare time for video games than I used to, so it may be for the best that this was fun for a few days but has very little chance of holding my interest longer than that, unless there’s a secret fifth difficulty level on which the game becomes a true challenge.

And yet: darn you, Harmonix! The original Guitar Hero, in addition to being entertaining, drew my attention to guitar parts in a way that I doubt anything non-interactive could have done; even now, I hear guitar-heavy music differently than I used to. Having once been irritated by the whole idea of a guitar solo (and being in a position where an inability to engage with whole segments of pop music actually makes me sad), I consider this awesome. Guitar Hero II, on the other hand, has only made me suspect that being a radio metal guitarist in the 80s was like having to play “Chopsticks” over and over again while somebody howled dopey things about girls into a microphone nearby.


GAMMA BROS. (Flash – free)

Playable online and downloadable for Mac & PC

In the old days, the technical limitations of arcade games– and presumed minuscule attention span of players– led to harsh noises and bright colors. As possibilities expanded, everyone assumed video games would become more realistic, as opposed to just being more complex representations of the garish Video Game Reality that many of us were getting used to. (A notable exception is Williams’ excellent Blaster.)

This is one situation where a lot of fun can come from nostalgia’s habit of (accidentally?) exaggerating the things it revives. Gamma Brothers bips, whirrs and gargles at you, but also stays quiet when it needs to, giving a sonic range that I’m pretty sure Pac-Man could have had if he’d wanted to– he just didn’t. The bright colors taper off into darkness, creating an effect that’s more like “neon in the rain” than “angry fruit salad”.

Gamma Bros. also plays exquisitely. You need to use the edges of the screen as much as the center, but enemies very rarely blindside you from offscreen. The dynamic of Galaga, where aliens first parade around the screen and then fall into formation, is even more fun when you have complete freedom of movement. And while the number of enemy types could be larger, there are enough to prevent complacency, and the boss battles more than make up for it.

A good player can probably reach the final space-octopus/mother-of-demons fight in two or three hours, so the time commitment isn’t huge. (Neither is replay value, unless you want to try again on Hard difficulty.)


Dance Dance Revolution Extreme 2 (PS2)

I found the “missions” silly and not varied enough, without many exciting songs to draw me in. Playing “Paranoia Survivor” just about makes up for it, though. I think it’s been six years since Konami released a mix of Paranoia I enjoyed, and this one’s great– syncopated enough to be like crude tap dancing instead of sprinting.

It’s a good thing I’m too tired to calculate what percentage of my lifetime that ‘six years’ means I’ve played DDR for.


[game title omitted]

I just played through an adventure game by a designer I usually like. Halfway through I started to suspect the worst, and indeed my fears were borne out: it was yet another game where the twist is that you’re dead but you don’t know it yet.

Since I didn’t think the designer in question would do something so predictable, it didn’t take the tension out of the game; right up until the end, I held out hope. And the whole thing was very well done for what it was. But…

Is this only a trope in games, where the first-person aspect of it makes the premise that much creepier, or do I just play mediocre games more often than I read mediocre fiction?


Grow Cube (web – free)

Life is good. “On”, the designer of Grow and Grow RPG (not to mention the mind-warping reflex games Hatch and Tontie) has a new Grow game called Grow Cube and a new blog where he’s already posted two small toys, with a third you can get by donating a few dollars.

I love games that self-document; games with oblique iconic instructions are almost as good. The new Grow doesn’t quite seem done (it’s version 0.1j), but that just means it’ll be worth playing through twice: once now, and once when all the flourishes are in.


Doukutsu Monogatari follow-up

I take it back; the thing you have to do to trigger the quest that gets you the best ending is completely obscure– depending on what path you’ve taken to the point where it happens, it’s either easy but not something one would ever do naturally, or nearly impossible. It goes back to being fair after that, though. The rest of the game is so sharply designed that I assume this is intentional.


Doukutsu Monogatari – Cave Story (PC and Mac – free)

This amazing game has made the rounds in the gamer world, but not very extensively elsewhere. Cave Story is an action-adventure game in the mold of early classic Nintendo games like The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kid Icarus, Castlevania. And it lasts about 5-10 hours the first time through, depending on your skill level, which I think is about the right length.

Cave Story has an advantage over its predecessors, though: game design really has advanced in the past 20 years. The secrets and hidden quests aren’t too obscure to be found without hints from a friend or tons of free time– they’re easy to see, and yet the main branch of the game flows so smoothly that you don’t sit around banging your head on an optional puzzle because you think you might need it to continue. The numbers that appear over your head when you take damage are invaluable; you don’t have to look up at your life bar during a fight to figure out which of the boss’s attacks you need to be scared of. The game also handles power-ups nicely by making damage to your weapon easy to incur (ouch) but almost as easy to fix. You can’t let your guard down just because you have the bestest weapon, but you also aren’t punished too viciously for slipping up.

Much as in some Ubisoft games, the mechanics are mostly taught by example; if you’re about to be in a life-or-death situation involving water, there will be a completely safe puddle beforehand to remind you how long you can stay underwater.

The one thing missing is a way to have multiple saved games at the same time; some decisions made in the game are irreversible, and apparently it has multiple endings (another modern thing, I think– I don’t remember seeing that in a platform game until around 1999). But the whole strength of the design is that you don’t have to care about any of this to enjoy it.

Here is an excellent English-language site for the game, with pointers to downloads for both the game and the translation patches that Aeon Genesis did from the original Japanese.


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