Striking at the Soul

Over the years I’ve come across many terms that I hate seeing applied to games.  Soul.  Magic.  Heart.  Charm.  Spark.  So it looks like it’s time to do another list, all of these terms deserve to be categorically addressed so I can explain exactly why they are not valid ways to judge games.  Let’s get right to it: time for the intimidating task of dissecting five different concepts in one article.  Let’s get started!

Magic

What it means:  Magic, when applied to games, is a catch-all term for an indescribable feeling you get from a game.  Something you can’t describe, but you just KNOW it when you see it.  Something that supercedes any part of a game you can actually give a supportable opinion on.  Magic is different from the other terms because, because…

Wait…

^6EBABD4672582A28D469764848E8551A7F70A000CCC6CD54D2^pimgpsh_thumbnail_win_distr

All of them are the same freaking thing! 

Yep, the list was a fake-out.  These (and probably many more) terms are all functionally identical, and it’s that concept that I want to argue against, in all of its guises.  There are two main things that the various terms (I’m just going to use soul for the rest of this article) are actually describing, and neither are good reasons for judging a game.  Let’s get to the real dissection!

Aesthetics

You know how some people judge games on their technical or budget merits?  How many polygons there are, how much wide open empty space the draw distance can show at once, how expensive the voice actors were?  Well people who care about a game’s soul would never do that.  Why?  Because it’s not petty ENOUGH!  It’s the little things that make a game great: little touches in the background, the exact right amount of comedic quirk in the dialogue, whether it’s a sequel or not.  Judging a game by the graphics as a whole makes you shallow, but judging it by dissecting minor details of the graphics makes you deep.  Maybe an 8-bit art style could have potentially passed your metric for the game having enough “soul” in its look, but you’re still judging a game for how it looks, and no euphemism is going to change that.

 

^FCA0B442250ECDF086CDCF577FF5D64CF67B9350E217412381^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

This is what letting games be judged by soul gets us.

 

Why would anyone believe in this double standard?  I’m not convinced that many genuinely do.  The fact is, saying a game is bad because of its graphics is going to make a lot of people disregard your opinion, which in my magical and soulful special spark of an opinion is justified.  As someone who still regularly plays games from earlier console generations, defends Nintendo for focusing on gameplay over writing and story in many of their series, and gets very annoyed by being told my systems of choice are inferior to the “master race” because the graphics aren’t as good, I obviously don’t approve of judging games by their graphics.  So I don’t like it when people ostensibly on my side do the exact same thing but insist that it’s actually about “soul.”  If you care about aesthetics to the point where a game not meeting your expectations in them can ruin the experience for you, I’ll have a much easier time agreeing to disagree if you don’t use vague and frustrating terms to hide it.  But maybe it isn’t really the artistic merit that the game is really being judged on, quite often it’s really…

Nostalgia

Yep, it’s come to this, the big N.  No, not Nintendo… well, a lot of the time they are the ones this is being used against, but that’s not the point.  It’s not a coincidence that sequels and recent games are so much more likely to be derided for having an insufficient quantity of soul.  Nostalgia is a powerful force.  I’m not going to claim to be immune to it: in fact I’m hyper-sensitive to it and develop it much faster than most people (I’m listening to a song that brings back memories of 2014 as I type this sentence).  I’ve certainly replayed many games that in no way merit ever being touched again because they gave me nostalgia, I’m still looking for my floppy disc of Dino: Lost in Bedrock just because it’s a different version than the one you can find online.

 

^355A81B605FE5CA0AFBE2CD3EFC209CA12AB26CAC5DFAC43B6^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

This has great nostalgia for me, do I have claws for claiming cat puns and terrible controls are soulful?

 

So having nostalgia is fine, enjoying things just because of nostalgia is fine.  But you have to be aware of what you’re doing, and more important, don’t judge new games on how much they appeal to your nostalgia!  If you want to pick up a game because it’s pandering to your nostalgia just right, go for it, but don’t judge newer games as a whole because they don’t accomplish the impossible task of giving you the same nostalgic feeling a game you played in elementary school does.  It is not the game lacking soul that makes it feel less magical than the 20-year-old previous installment did, it’s the fact that you were 20 years younger back then.  Not understanding your nostalgia cravings is just going to lead to disappointment and despair, and bashing every new game in a franchise because of that makes you annoying, okay? So stop it.

So what would it be?

So if games actually did have souls, what would the soul be?  What is the core of a game, the element that really makes it special?  If you took away all the extras and aesthetics, what would be left to define the pure essence of a game?  How long am I going to insult your intelligence by building this up when it’s blatantly obvious that I’m going to say the answer is gameplay?

 

^7DACD220C88290103C093AB70CD3D587A65D5B11F01F8AC4C9^pimgpsh_fullsize_distr

The gameplay in this is more soul than you’d find in any pixel art walking simulator.

 

Yes, if we were to say games actually have a soul, it would clearly be gameplay.  In addition to being the most important part of a game, gameplay ultimately leads to the things that are wrongfully called the soul of a game.  A game being good in the first place will be a major contribution to how much nostalgia it eventually produces, right?  And the positive associations a game gives you thanks to its gameplay are what lead to the little aesthetic touches and quirks that people mistake for soul.  If Bubsy was a platforming masterpiece, I firmly believe Bubsy’s annoying puns would be iconic and loved in a somewhat ironic way like the dialogue in Star Fox 64 and Resident Evil 4.

So that’s my rant for the day.  Week, months, whatever I procrastinated it to.  I hope I’ve made some points about what a game should and shouldn’t be judged by, or at least gotten people to find better terms for what they use to judge games.  A thought occurred to me as I was writing this, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that I was using gameplay as just as much of a vague catch-all in this article as the terms I railed against.  Going into detail about what I consider gameplay, though, would take up an entire article of its own… so that’s what I’m going to give it.  Stay tuned!

 

Advertisements

New Appreciation for Mario

Soulless. Lazy. Rehashed. Uninspired. These are just some of the words that describe the reasons people have for hating the New Super Mario Bros. series. Half of it, at least, is underrated and does not get the love it deserves. Yes, I know they’re some of the best selling games of all time, this is about their reception in the gaming community. Before I go into detail about the two I want to defend, let’s have an overview of the entire series.

New Super Mario Bros. was announced at DS’s public unveiling during E3 2004. Very little was known about it at the time, but there was one gigantic thing it had going for it: it was the first new traditional 2D Mario in well over a decade. When the game was released in 2006 it got great reviews and spectacular sales, but it didn’t take long for people to start complaining that it wasn’t as good as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. There are valid reasons for believing that (low difficulty, poorly executed use of power-ups to find secret areas), but the predominant ones were superficial or unfair. The game’s graphical style lacked “soul”, it was too similar to a game we hadn’t seen anything like in 15 years. This led to a considerable backlash against the game, and despite how well it sold we wouldn’t hear another peep from the series for three years.

At E3 2009, Nintendo defied all expectations and announced the next game in the New series for Wii instead of DS. Called simply New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the game was overshadowed by Super Mario Galaxy 2 being announced at the same conference. While there’s no circumstance where you can say it was unfair for Super Mario Galaxy 2 to overshadow something, NSMBW still got relatively little attention for Nintendo’s big holiday game that would go on to sell tens of millions. Most focus is given to the co-operative four player mode it introduced, which is really a great disservice to the game, but I’ll go into more detail on that later.

At E3 2011 Nintendo showed a tech demo for their new Wii U console called New Super Mario Bros. Mii. Despite claims that it was a tech demo and not a real game, it was obvious from the detail in the HUD and amount of levels shown that it was going to be a full game at some point. Before the real game was shown, however, Nintendo announced New Super Mario Bros. 2 for 3DS. This is when people really started to turn on the series, furious at it for merely existing before we knew any details about it. New Super Mario Bros. Mii was renamed New Super Mario Bros. U at E3 2012 and confirmed as a launch game for the Wii U, while NSMB2 would launch in August. Despite the fact that it is not uncommon for a series to have a portable and console game released in the same timeframe (Metroid, Castlevania, Call of Duty, Resident Evil, and God of War are some examples) and that the NSMB series was averaging a new game every two years since its inception, people were absolutely enraged by this “milking” of the series. Neither game was given a fair chance by the gaming community, and one of them absolutely deserved one.

You’ve probably guessed which of the two games I feel are so underrated. They are the console ones, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. There is a pretty clear explanation for why the quality in half the series is so much higher than the other: the original New Super Mario Bros. was made by an inexperienced team and Nintendo as a whole was out of practice at making 2D Marios. The team reached their stride with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was made by a new rookie team while the established one made New Super Mario Bros. U. This shows in pretty much every aspect, with the console games being much more challenging, creative in level design, and willing to try new ideas.

Let’s start with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As I said earlier, people often associate it with the ability to play the entire game in four player co-op, which spread to other 2D platformers. This undersells what makes the game great, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is at its best in single player. The level design is on par with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, NSMBW deserves to be seen as an all-time platforming classic. The game’s best new feature wasn’t co-op, it was the Super Guide. Yes, I know that sounds insane, but give me a second. For years before NSMBW was released, the biggest complaint with Nintendo’s games was that they were too easy. So the last thing we needed was a mode where the game would literally play a level for you, right? Wrong. Super Guide allowed the designers to make the levels challenging without frustrating newer or more casual players. Ever since its introduction, the “ease disease” that afflicted Nintendo has been eradicated. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was free to deliver an experience on par with the best Mario games of old, and if you give it a chance where you’re really concentrating (instead of messing around with four players and relying on the abundant lives and instant respawns to get you through) on it you’ll see its true quality.

Now let’s look at New Super Mario Bros. U. Much of my praise for it is similar to what I said for New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The level design is even better, and the many Super Mario World references (most notably the interconnected world map) are greatly appreciated after Super Mario Bros. 3’s themes dominating the New series for so long. Being as good as NSMBW would be enough for it to earn far more praise than it has been given, but there is something else in the game that adds at least as much as the main story, and makes it easily my favorite 2D platformer of all time. This feature is Challenge Mode. Challenge modes aren’t unheard of in platformers, but it is NSMBU’s flawless execution of the concept that makes it so much better. The challenges are fine tuned to perfection, achieving a brutal difficulty that far surpasses The Lost Levels while never feeling unfair. Things you didn’t even notice when playing levels normally turn out to be perfectly implemented for a challenge all along. For example, one level has coins flying at you throughout it, in normal gameplay it barely means anything. But when you have to beat that level without collecting a coin, you realize the coins were meticulously spaced so that they were all avoidable, but only with precise platforming and timing. The gold medal times for the time trial levels are calculated to an amazing degree, it was very rare for me not to be within a second of them when I succeeded. Nothing has tested my platforming skill to such an extent in over a decade, and anyone who feels the series has gotten too easy absolutely has to play NSMBU’s challenge mode.

Okay, I’ve raved about the games, but I’m not going to just pretend the criticism of them doesn’t exist. Let’s go over a few complaints. The most common one is that they are “rehashes.” Yes, the variety of settings has pretty much stayed the same throughout the series, but do you really play 2D platformers for the backgrounds? NSMBW and NSMBU both made significant advances in gameplay. New Super Mario Bros. Wii added the co-op function that, while given more attention than I feel it deserves, was definitely something new that had an impact on the genre. It also made the use of powerups more focused, instead of New Super Mario Bros.’ annoying “Here’s a star coin you need a rare powerup not in this level to get” tactic NSMBW designed levels around a single powerup that was the only one found in that level. It also introduced the Super Guide, giving quite a bit more freedom to the level design to challenge players. New Super Mario Bros. U added Challenge Mode, which despite its appearance of being a minor bonus is actually a huge step forward for the series. The other biggest complaint is that the series feels lazy and soulless. Making great levels is never easy, regardless of how different the backgrounds are, no game with level design like the console NSMBs can be lazy. Soulless is a meaningless term when applied to gaming, it almost always refers to superficial features like art style. A game’s soul is its gameplay, and the console NSMBs have plenty of it.

2D platformers don’t make for good trailers. Showing a few seconds of a level can’t convey the important parts of level design, and isn’t going to be very flashy from a visual perspective. I understand that all of the NSMB games may look the same on the surface, but if you look deeper and give them a chance you can find two of the greatest platformers of all time in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. Think of all the good times Mario has given you, and give his New games a chance. You’ll be the one to benefit in the end.

Don’t Do What DLC Don’t Does

When this generation began, I had really high hopes for the idea of downloadable content, or DLC for short. Cheaper expansions for fighting games, as opposed to just churning out 5 additional versions at $60 a pop. Additional level packs for games that already felt complete, a bonus. The ability to put in various ideas that would have, in the past, just ended up on the cutting room floor and be lost to time. DLC seemed like it could have improved the industry at its core, allowing for better experiences. I was optimistic about the good DLC could do for the industry as a whole.

As is normally the case when I’m optimistic, I was dead wrong. I could not have been more wrong. Gaming continues to slide its way into dystopia. DLC is used for little else than cashgrabs and squeezing as much money out of the consumers as humanly possible. This generation we saw the cost of games return to the $60 we saw during the days of the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. Yes, yes, I know, inflation means that $60 goes less far than it did in the 90s and that game prices back in those days weren’t as standardized as they are today, as carts with larger amounts of memory yielded higher prices. Shut up. That doesn’t mean people didn’t flip their shit when the $10 price rise was announced at the beginning of the last generation and at least back in the Genesis/SNES days, there wasn’t the additional leech of DLC further draining one’s pockets. Yes, somehow the addition of DLC has actually made games even MORE expensive than they were back in the 90’s, and depending on the game, the full cost of the game might even dwarf those of the earliest Nintendo 64 games ($70-$80) or in some cases, even the mighty NeoGeo AES (a whopping $100 per game!). This is ridiculous. I understand that games cost far more now than ever to make, though that’s mainly because most developers focus less on streamlining technology and more on gaudy photo-realistic graphics that nowadays fall well-within the realm of the uncanny valley (you go, Creepy Old Man Head). But hey, that aside’s a topic for another day. This article is going to focus more on things companies should avoid and attempt (but mostly avoid) when it comes to the usage of downloadable content. Maybe if companies heed the words of their customers, DLC can truly reach its full potential: being used to improve games, rather than just bleeding consumers dry.

Rule the first: DON’T do on-disc DLC. It’s hard to forget Capcom’s whole debacle with Street Fighter x Tekken and for good reason. In SFxT, 12 complete characters were found just by searching a disc that was obtained before the street date. Upon the discovery of these assets, Capcom claimed it was done in order to avoid compatibility issues regarding the future release of the DLC characters, as was the case with Mortal Kombat 9. This wasn’t the first time Capcom pulled stuff like this: both versions of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 (DLC characters Shuma-Gorath and Jill Valentine), all versions of Street Fighter 4 (alternate costumes), Dead Rising 2 and Off the Record (alternate outfits and, in OtR’s case, cheat codes). It wasn’t the last either, but the games in question were well into development by the time the controversy began. My point is SFxT caused enough backlash to cause even Christian Svennson, the face of Capcom USA, to state outright that they would be reconsidering using such business practices in the future. So far, it looks like even the seemingly oblivious Capcom of Japan managed to get the message. Furthermore, DON’T take assets that were originally intended to be on-disc DLC and sell them as “true DLC”. Admittedly, this is much harder to prove that the aforementioned on-disc DLC, but it’s scummy all the same.

Rule the second: DON’T make overpowered assets (i.e. weapons, characters) into paid DLC. Frankly, I think it’s wrong to make overpowered assets as DLC period. But charging for said power-ups is just another way of incorporating a favorite corporate tactic: “pay to win”. While “pay to win” is significantly more common in free-to-play games (like Farmville), it’s slowly begun to creep its way into AAA $60 retail titles as well and while it can be somewhat justified in the case of the former, the same cannot be said for the latter. It’s arguably even scummier than on-disc DLC. Of course, there’s an easy way around that: just add the ability to unlock these new weapons, characters or whatever via in-game “achievements”, like beating the game on the highest difficulty level or something. …of course, nowadays, it’s not entirely unheard of for developers to charge extra for said highest difficulty level.

Next we come to the last major rule: DON’T do “true” retailer exclusive DLC. That is to say, don’t do DLC that is only accessible if you preorder a certain game from a certain retailer. Now I’m not saying that allowing for preorder bonuses from ordering from a specific retailer is wrong in and of itself: exclusivity for a limited time is perfectly fine in my opinion. It’s just when the DLC is not made available for general consumption on the system in question’s online store that I get annoyed. It hardly seems fair to anyone who either bought the game well after the game’s release. Furthermore, it doesn’t make any sense to me, as it removes a potential avenue for future revenue regarding older games, which seems a bit counter-productive, considering most publishers these days seem to exist for the sole purpose of draining every last penny from their customers’ bank accounts. Making certain pieces of DLC exclusively preorder bonuses also tends to bother fans in general: I’ve got a friend who still curses to this day the fact that he was unable to get all the DLC characters in Disgaea 4 for the PS3, due to his choice of retailer. Of course, he also complained that he was unable to get the Casino Night DLC for Sonic Generations, which was a pretty pointless piece of DLC in the first place.

Those are the three major rules I’ve come up with, but that isn’t to say that there aren’t other things publishers should avoid when it comes to dealing with DLC. For example, DON’T charge so much for the ability to implement older assets in future titles, looking at you, Namco Bandai with your damn Tekken Tunes in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 and the older soundtracks being in Soul Calibur IV and V. If anything, they should just be included on the disc in the first place, but if you can’t fit it on the disc, don’t charge so much for the entire package: make it roughly $1 for an entire game’s soundtrack or old skins or old maps or whatever. On that note, DON’T make things that would’ve been unlockables in the olden days into paid DLC. Also, DON’T break immersion when it comes to adding additional bonus areas to games: for example, in Darksiders II, the DLC bonus dungeon required you to access it from the main menu, rather than having it appear in-game. Of course, this doesn’t apply to cases with episodic add-on content, like Undead Nightmare in Red Dead Redemption.

Now onto some more positive notes, after all this wouldn’t be much of an article if I didn’t provide any advice to publishers with regards to DLC practices that customers might actually enjoy. For example: DO mix free and paid DLC updates. Now I am aware that in many cases, publishers aren’t ENTIRELY at fault for the fact that it seems like all significant DLC is paid, while free DLC is limited to necessary gamefix patches and that these limitations are somewhat due to certain…other parties at work (*coughhacksnortMicrosoftcough*). Hopefully, future generations won’t be limited by such things, but for the time being, at the very least, making certain pieces of existing DLC free for a limited time (for those who already own the game, at least) might act as a way to garner a bit of good will amongst the consumer base, though this might be even more difficult, just due to the closed nature of most online storefronts. Granted, Valve’s Steam platform has gone beyond the call of duty in this case, by even making entire games free for an entire weekend in order to drum up interest. Free trials have the added benefit of getting consumers who might not have otherwise bothered with your game to try it out, and that could lead to more sales down the line, especially on older titles.

Speaking of older titles, DO release DLC down the line to revive an established game, with entirely new content. Case in point, Nintendo’s upcoming Super Luigi U is a full-on expansion pack for New Super Mario Bros. U that is as long as the original game, and it’s a DLC add-on. Besides, nowadays consoles seem to be moving more and more towards PCs in terms of hardware architechure, so why not revive one of the great ideas of PC games: the expansion pack? As an added benefit, companies could use expansion DLC as a way to keep the original dev teams of their respective games working and allow for a greater understanding on the sales of said game, rather than just basing the future of a game on its day 1 sales and immediately either starting work on a sequel or just straight up ditching the franchise for the next 5-7 years. Expansion packs just sound more reasonable to me, in the long run.

Another thing with regards to games that have been on store shelves for awhile, DO release “Game of the Year” or at least editions marked “complete” with all of the DLC content included AND implemented on-disc. Whether they come out the next year or a few more years down the line, this is actually kind of important just due to the fleeting nature of DLC itself. Take for example, the whole spiel with the extra characters in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2, when all of those DLC characters and missions were taken down from both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3’s online stores, though they were eventually brought back…for a limited time. Seriously, people are already worried about archiving modern games because bullshit like this. I mean, at least back in even the days of the PS2 and the Gamecube, people never even considered that games might be put up for re-release in the future, but nowadays, it’s so commonplace that this shouldn’t even be an issue. Considering the difficulties that many companies are having with their own re-releases, you’d think that many of them would be openly trying to avoid sabotaging the potential for future re-releases. I guess that’s why many gamers openly opine that games have become far more disposable than ever before, but I suppose that’s a topic better explored another time.

Again, three suggestions with regards to what SHOULD be done with regards to DLC, but what else can be done to regain the trust of gamers? Well, for starters, DO improve bug-testing before going gold. While not strictly DLC related, it does fall into a similar category and a heavy reliance on day-one patches have not helped matters. Also, DO consider doing some cost-effective DLC (like say, extra difficulty settings) for free in order to add some replay. And finally, DO implement backwards-compatibility with regards to DLC. One of the things Rock Band did really well was allow you to access DLC from the first game in the second game. I’d be insanely for the next Street Fighter to allow me to use all of the old costumes I bought in the various SF4 games and SFxT at no added cost.

So there you go, there are some good dos and don’ts with regards to how DLC should be handled. And the timing couldn’t be better, as it seems like publishers are going even further with this sort of thing by implementing a new form of monetization, well, new to consoles anyway: microtransactions. We’ve already seen it happen with Dead Space 3 and chances are we’ll be seeing it a lot more often in the future, at least from EA. This worries me, but hopefully other companies will avoid jumping on the bandwagon and instead try to make DLC more viable and less of a thorn in the sides of gamers.