Game Eaters

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ebert just cannot let go.

Roger Ebert has had a long antagonism with the medium of videogames... or so it would seem.

I first remember hearing his thoughts on games at a film festival I attended in 1999. I don't remember his exact words, but I do remember him commenting on the subject during a panel Q&A. He said something about videogames not having any substance or soul to them, that they were just pure stimuli. Those are my words, but I remember his gist was similar.

I am kicking myself right now because I used to have two e-mails from Ebert on this topic, but I lost them at some point. I'll try to remember them...

The first was a response sent to me after I offered to speak with Ebert on videogames. I was motivated by what he said at the festival, so I e-mailed him afterwards offering to teach him a bit about the medium just so he could have a more informed opinion. (This wasn't a completely silly offer since I was a student studying videogames and new media at UWMilwaukee at the time.) He politely declined but did claim--again, I'm paraphrasing from memory--he probably shouldn't have opened his mouth on a subject he admittedly didn't know much about.

The second response was to another e-mail I sent him about a year later. (I only e-mailed him twice.) My second message was in reference to a comment he'd made about current machinima being artistically empty because of its connection with the iconography of videogames. This really annoyed me because I thought he wasn't going to say stuff like that anymore, so I asked him why he insisted on judging videogames without real knowledge of them. That's when he told me [paraphrasing] he'd decided videogames were fundamentally different from movies in that they were interactive so they could never be what cinema was.

That was 5 years ago. And here Ebert is again, in 2005, spouting the same rhetoric on his website:

I [do] indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Ebert is a reasonably and literate fellow. I'm not expecting him to be converted to liking videogames, and I don't think it's important that he is either. What bothers me is his on-going insistence that videogames are, in fact, inferior to other media. I don't understand why he needs to make this claim. Why can't he just say he doesn't see art in the medium in its current form, say he's not interested, and just leave it at that?

Ebert is making a theoretical argument here. He isn't just saying he doesn't get it. He's saying he does get it. He's saying "I have analyzed the fundamental properties of these media and concluded that videogames cannot be art." I find this disappointing for someone of Ebert's intelligence.

Ebert will probably never change his mind, and that's fine. He can say whatever he wants. He doesn't have to care about videogames. He doesn't even have to understand the culture. I just wish he would realize that because so he has no business judging videogames, or gamers, or the value of videogame culture.

I've spent the last few years of my life with people who are considered pivotal figures in Game Studies. My thesis at MIT was about how cultural meaning is constructed in gaming culture. I am not claiming to be the greatest expert on videogames, but I am more of an expert than Ebert will ever be... and I am not alone in that.

When Ebert decides he's finally ready to sit down and learn something about videogames, I and others like me will be available to help him understand why games are meaningful to a generation of people. But until he decides to do that, he really should refrain from making such comments. They are obnoxious and insulting to an entire culture.

Totally Unreviewed

Winx Club, Totally Spies and Sky Dancers have all recently been released for the GameBoy Advance, and I cannot find a single review of them on the Internet. Not IGN, not GameSpot, not Metacritic or Gamerankings, not even on Game Girl Advance. Now, I understand these games aren't actually targeted at me, a 29 year old man, but maybe they're interesting to the Game-Eaters readership, though no one really seems to write any comments besides the site's contributors and Darius. If people are actually interested in these games, let me know and I will go to the store, pick them up, give them a try and write up reviews.

It's sad that so-called "pink" games get so little coverage, despite all the press about how the female market is the game industry's best hope for growth. And some of them are quality purchases: Kim Possible 2 was a damned fine old-school Prince of Persia-type game that nearly snuck by me and most reviewers.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Generation's Most Underrated Games

With the Xbox 360 arriving soon, home console game developers are starting to wrap up their work on the current-generation and are beginning new projects for the so-called "next-gen" consoles. Next Christmas, it's possible that you'll see Xbox, Playstation 2 and GameCube games all squashed into a single "retro" shelf in most game stores. Or you might have to go to speciality stores where you'll find them alongside SNES and Genesis cartridges. This is already the fate of Dreamcast games.

For the gift-giving season, Game Eaters have voted on and put together a list of the games of the current console generation that we felt were underrated by both the public and the hardcore. They're not million-sellers like Grand Theft Auto, neither are they Critically Acclaimed Megabucks-on-Ebay games like Rez. This is straight-to-the-bargain-bin stuff, and while there's probably a good reason why they ended up in there, but in the end, they're still good games.

In case you're wondering, we've not included PC or handheld games because they don't work on the same generational cycles. The following list is presented in alphabetical order.

Top Cumulative Votes
Aqua Aqua (PS2)
Previously released as Wetrix for the Dreamcast and N64, this is a 3D falling-block puzzle game that combines fluid dynamics, frantic gameplay and deep strategy into a single package. Once you get a hang of it, it's easy to get stuck in the "just one more game" trap, and good multiplayer modes just make it easier to ignore the low texture quality of the graphics.

Chu Chu Rocket (DC, GBA)
We debated whether Chu Chu Rocket was really "underrated" and concluded that Chu Chu Rocket was extremely popular and recognized by most gamers who had actually played it and virtually unknown otherwise. The concept is simple: point mice into your rocket, keep cats away from your rocket. Put four players on the same board and the trash-talking quickly escalates. Reversals of fortune, spontaneous alliances and blistering speed and deep strategy easily make up for its rudimentary graphics.

Illbleed (DC)
In Illbleed, you play a fear-proof high school student trying to survive a horror theme park. It’s like Westworld but with horror movies. We guess it bombed because the premise was too goofy and the controls bizarre (you have use a special “horror
measurement device” to analyze situations.) However, its humor was witty and its gameplay innovative. It’s real camp that knows it’s silly, with surprises in both gameplay and story from beginning to end.

Ribbit King (PS2, GC)
It's basically miniature golf with the balls replaced with frogs. They're self-propelled, they're hungry, they hop along the course in a deterministic, yet always surprising manner as you try to bump them a little closer to the hole. Unlike other miniature golf games, missing the hole is often more amusing than nailing the stroke. Appreciating the original art design of Ribbit King is a matter of personal taste and the cutscenes are rife with videogame in-jokes and offbeat humor.

Technic Beat (PS2)
A rapid-fire rhythm-action game that successfully blends strategy with muscle memory, you move a cute character over a playing field filled with circles, each of which correspond to a different note or group of notes. Like all good music games, you'll need to pay attention to your ears as well as your eyes if you want to succeed in hearing the library of classic Namco videogame remixes in all their glory. Surprisingly, the game is not actually published by Namco in the US, but by Mastiff instead. The graphics aren't technically bad but its extensive use of particle effects just didn't make for great back-of-the-box screenshots.

Way of the Samurai (PS2)
Way of the Samurai (and its successor) was not much of a hit with the critics, possibly due to its seemingly short play time and odd mix of action and conversation. For some, though, it is perhaps one of the best samurai games to come along since Bushido Blade. The core of the game relies on innovative swordfighting mechanics and a complex multilinear narrative that lets you take one of the many sides in the game's small town. The richness of Way of the Samurai is only revealed with a second (or third) run through the game. If you've ever wondered what it's like to be a drifting rounin, this is a must play.

Game Eaters' Personal Favorites
Bust-A-Move 4 (DC)
Clara: There are about 30 games in this series, all with the same mechanics: you have to clear the bubbles on the screen before they get to the bottom. What makes this one different from the others? The DC version boasts the best controls, so that you can aim to the pixel by using the triggers of your controller. It also includes puzzles that use pulleys, which you have to balance, to bring a new layer of strategy to the games. You can edit your own levels. It also has great colourful graphics and catchy music and sound (these are a trademark of the series). Plus the most interesting collection of characters to play, from Bub and Bob, to the amazing Monsta, which is like a white jumping blob. Depending on how you're doing, they'll clap in joy, or jump in desperation (some of them get annoyingly wimpy...). All in all, this is the optimized, and most engaging version of all the Puzzle Bobble games.

Robot Alchemic Drive (PS2)
Philip: Few giant robot games manage to convey the scale of Robot Alchemic Drive. This game hands your character the remote controls of a Voltron-like machine and you'll have to command every discrete limb into motion, albeit in a surprisingly intuitive way. The catch is that you're still looking through the eyes of your teenaged protagonist, somewhere on the ground of the city-turned-warzone and while you're entering the combo for a double-fisted rocket punch you need to make sure you're not in the path of said attack as buildings are collapsing all around you. Add the so-bad-it's-good voice acting and a couple of dumb giant aliens and you have a great homage to classic Japanese Kaiju movies of the 70's and 80's.

Pac-Man Vs (GC)
Philip: This GameCube-GBA link-cable game was never released as a separate title but instead came bundled with a couple of other Namco GameCube titles. The Pac-Man World 2/Pac-Man Vs. bundle is probably the easiest to find in stores.

Nick: Have you ever wondered what it would be like if ghosts were real? Well in Pacman Vs., they are! The major difference between Vs. and the original is real people control the ghosts. When a ghost eats Pacman, the two players switch roles. The beauty of it all is that the player controlling Pacman uses a GBA to see the entire map and the ghosts are limited to viewing a small area around themselves. So even though the rules of the game haven't really changed, the experience is profoundly different than the original.

Sky Odyssey (PS2)
Matt: Sky Odyssey is, I dare say, a poetic videogame. It manages to take a simple concept, aviation, and strip away all the “realistic” aspects until you are left with the mythic weight of Man’s struggle against Nature. This game isn’t about looking at dials. It’s about the feeling, the emotion of flying. Why players didn’t connect with it I have no idea. Lack of marketing on the publisher’s side, or perhaps lack of a soul on the players’. No other game will make you want to quit your day job and become a pilot.

Philip: Being a PS2 launch title, going up against Tekken Tag Tournament and Ridge Racer V probably had something to do with this title's sales invisibility. The visual details may seem crude but Sky Odyssey really delivered on incredibly long sightlines, showing off the PS2's relative beefiness when compared to its predecessor.

That's it! Hope you enjoyed our list. Let us know if you'd like to see more of our favorite games!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Dance, Voldo, Dance

A well-choreographed, extremely freaky (in more ways than one) dance music machinema starring two player-controlled Voldos from Soul Calibur. Gives a whole new meaning to "Soul Charge".

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Mother 3

Yes, I said "Mother 3".

Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Doom movie isn't that bad

Really, it isn't, and I'm having a lot of trouble understanding why people don't like it so much. Yes, the plot has changed and the baddies aren't from Hell. Was the original plot actually that good? Are people actually angry at the scriptwriters for coming up with a plot that made the monsters and action of Doom make sense when judged by movie standards? That actually had some twists?

Yes, it wasn't non-stop high-flying action and there were a lot of corridors. The game doesn't do much better in the corridor-and-halls department, and if you have don't have a break in the action, it's much, much harder to build suspense. Would critics have preferred a Doom movie that didn't even attempt to be scary?

What's more insulting to the game and fans of the game: a movie that actually tries its level best to take all its content seriously and justify the presence of every element on the screen, or a movie that faithfully rips everything right out of the game and highlights the silliness and campiness of the original game?

This was a low-budget movie, put together by a Czechoslovakian crew that, as far as I can tell, actually played the original Doom. The love for the game is in there and I think the director put more thought into the essense of the Doom experience than the average Doom player. This is evident in the film's nods to the experience of multiplayer Doom. The "handles" of the soldiers, the arena-like settings, the deathmatch at the end of the movie. Anyone who played a LAN party with the original Doom knows, eventually, someone's going to start a punchfest when he runs out of ammo. And it's in the movie.

It's not an overly serious movie and I'd say it's not even really scary. However, it has enough well-timed shock-scares to justify its Halloween release and enough gunplay and pithy quotes to be an enjoyable action flick. Flickering lights, teleportals, weapons floating in mid-air, even berserk mode are all in the movie, and they're all there for a good narrative reason. It even tries to put in its two cents on how it perceives the relationship between games and violence, a dialogue to which the original game was no stranger. It's just articulated in such a way that, in the end, may be too complicated and subtle for the whiny, disappointed IMDB-posting Doom "fans" to understand.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Snake versus the CIA

I do not know the origin of this clip but it's a must-see for MGS3 fans out there.