Category Archives: Video Games

Diggin’ in the Carts

Red Bull put together this great series last year about Japanese video game music in retro games. It features a lot of unseen heroes who created some of the most memorable melodies in games like Final Fantasy, Pacman, or Street Fighter with very little to work with. It’s a fascinating watch and it features interviews with Flying Lotus and Anamanaguchi.

You can get every episode here.

Paul McCartney’s music video for the Destiny soundtrack is a bizarre, awkward mess

Activision gave living legend Paul McCartney, who has no interest in video games, a shitload of money to record a new song, “Hope for the Future,” for the Destiny soundtrack just because they could. It’s an awkward track that doesn’t fit the tone of the game, and the video reinforces that.

In it, Paul visits different parts of the Destiny world as a hologram and a messenger of hope. It’s weird.

Watch below.

The Four Fundamental Assumptions Everyone is Getting Wrong About Anita Sarkeesian

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Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist, media critic, and blogger who writes and produces a Youtube series/website called Feminist Frequency. Her videos about women in video games are well thought, insightful, reasonable, and absolutely correct about the values they reflect (if you haven’t watched them yet, I recommend it). Despite this or probably because of it, her most recent video, which explored violence against women as background decoration in video games, earned her death threats and a swarm of misogynistic retaliation.

With that, I present the following list of four fundamental assumptions I see made against her that everyone is getting wrong:

1. Anita Sarkeesian hates video games

This one is usually the first assumption people wrong about her make and the one they couldn’t be more incorrect about. She starts every video by stating “it is possible to be critical of some aspects of media while still finding it enjoyable or valuable,” and looking at how aggressively detailed her videos are about video game history or keeping track with the sheer number of examples they cite should make it very clear that she knows her shit. Think about how absurd it would be for someone to invest that much time and energy playing something as obscure and dated like Star Fox Adventures just to make a point (seriously, that game sucked).

2. Anita cherrypicks some of her examples so her entire argument is inavlid

Yes, there a handful of examples Anita references in her videos that are cherrypicked, taken out of context, and made to look a lot worse than they are. Being hypercritical about these specific elements weakens her arguments, but that doesn’t mean they’re all completely invalid.  Feminism in video gaming  is  a somewhat “new” concept that many haven’t contemplated or have the grasp of knowledge to argue about, and it’s because of this that Anita has been elected the unofficial “face” of this movement. Leveling personal criticisms or flaws against her for particular misgivings shouldn’t be enough to dismiss her ideas which speak to something much greater.

Which brings me to…

3. Anita is a feminist which means she hates all men and assumes all men actively hate women

Feminism is a loaded term that immediately puts some on the defensive and conjures up images of bra burning women castrating men en masse while getting an abortion and giving each other high fives during a Melissa Etheridge concert. Yes, there are extremists in feminism who would probably dig that just as there are extremists with everything in life, but that shouldn’t undermine the core ideal of feminism: to promote and encourage ideas and actions that strive to treat women with the same regard and respect as men. Anita doesn’t argue that there can’t/shouldn’t be violence against women in video games, that there can’t/shouldn’t be male protagonists, or that all developers are actively trying to promote sexists ideas.

She wants developers to be self-aware about their influence on culture and make efforts against misogynistic practices.

4. Anita is trying to destroy gaming as we know it

If you can’t see her videos on gaming culture as anything else, then look at them as an argument against bad writing. A lot of game developers are very technically minded people so it’s no surprise that they aren’t the most creative writers when it comes to storytelling. Using violence against women to give a story “grit” as a shorthand to establish “amorality” in a game’s world or to set off a hero’s quest isn’t terrible just because it comes at the expense of women – it’s terrible because it’s lazy writing. Gaming is a still relatively new art medium, but it has the potential to explore ideas and topics in much deeper ways than other art mediums can. If videogames continue to rely on the same tropes, though, they’re going to reach their max potential for storytelling really quick.

Some would argue that they already have.

Let’s just hope developers are taking note.

Russian Subway Dogs

While Russia might be more known for its pussy riots, its common knowledge to the residents that there are dog riots too! ………

In Russian Subway Dogs, you must terrorize kindly subway travelers into dropping their food. The more food you eat, the more stamina you gain and the longer you last. The problem? You have to fight off hoards of rival dogs and avoid other travelers who drop explosive vodka bottles instead of food to do it. It’s a fun survival game that should hopefully enlighten the world to the noble plight of the subway dog.

You can download the game for free here.

Super Hexagon

Super Hexagon, designed by Terry Cavanagh (who also made the excellent VVVVVV), is a mind bending, seizure inducing assault of color, sound, and action that features music by 8-Bit musicians, Chipzel. Learning to maneuver through the maze is frustrating at first, but it doesn’t take long to get addicted.

You can get a download link to it from the game’s site here.

In some acid fueled dystopia run by rave obsessed oppressors, school children will be taught the names of polygons with this game.

Super Crate Box

Advertised as a game “to bring back the glory of the golden arcade age, when all that really mattered was getting on that high score list” – Super Crate Box is incredibly easy to pick up, but crushingly difficult to master. In it, you face an infinite horde of enemies, but your only objective is to gather as many crates as you can. The catch? Each crate spawns you with a different random weapon, forcing you to drastically change your play style with each crate pickup. Super Crate Box is incredibly addicting, and you can download it for free from the game’s site or you can pay for the iOS mobile version from the itunes App store to play on your phone, instead.

The Basement Collection

As it is in any artform, the first thing an artist is recognized for is very rarely the first thing they’ve “done.” A lot of  game developers start off by publishing smaller flash games for free on sites like Newgrounds, and Edmund McMillen, the mastermind behind Super Meat Boy & The Binding of Isaac, is no exception. The Basement Collection gathers all of Edmund’s best freeware games from 2006-2009 into a packed collection stuffed with updated graphics, alternate soundtracks, commentary, easter eggs, and art. While this release will probably only be played by fans already familiar with Edmund – it’s an excellent compendium of work that showcases the talent of one of the best developers in gaming today.

Seven games are featured here including the original flash prototype for Meat Boy. While the original Meat Boy features a lot of the core components that would define its later release like its heavy difficulty and enemy free platforming, the controls are clunky compared to the perfected ones of its sequel. Coming from someone who has beaten Super Meat Boy 100%, the relative simplicity in the level design of the original in comparison to its major release counterpart makes the game frustrating to play especially when dying over and over is caused more by bad controls than difficulty.

Although Meat Boy is the most instantly recognizable game in the bunch, it’s also the flimsiest and, thankfully, the only game here that feels included for posterity’s sake. Time Fcuk, a trippy puzzle platformer about a guy facing his (literal) inner demon that with gravity shifting and dimensional hopping puzzles, and Spewer, a physics base platformer about a small worm whose vomit manipulates the world in different ways (it’s not as juvenile as it sounds), both showcase Edmund’s amazing talent for level design. Although the thematic content of Time Fcuk is stronger than Spewer’s, both games are incredibly well thought out and could hold their own as standalone games.

Coil and Aether, two other games in the collection, are the most artistically minded out of the bunch.  While Coil is an interesting diversion that really stands out from the other games, its appeal rests largely on its unique approach. It’s an abstract, experimental meditation on death, but there’s not a whole lot to it. Aether, on the other hand, is definitely the biggest accomplishment here and the less said about it, the better. It explores the idea that deep rooted anxieties are never easily fixed, but challenging them will broaden your worldview more than you ever thought. It’s the most honest and personal game here, and it’s the game that gives me the most promise about Edmund’s potential.

Triachnid and Grey Matter are the last two games that round out the collection, and they’re good but not amazing. Triachnid’s hinders purely on convoluted controls (which I guess is the point), and they’re such a struggle to use that it will make the game unplayable for a lot of people. Grey Matter is a standard arcade style “shooter” that is probably the most difficult entry in the collection, but there’s not a lot in it to differentiate it from other games like it.

Regardless, The Basement Collection is an absolutely essential purchase if you’re a fan of Edmund’s other work. Yes, you can still play all of the games here for free on Newgrounds, but the extra goodies and the cheap price make it well worth purchasing. Although some of the extras do feel needlessly self-indulgent or come off as unfocused rambling (Edmund answers the same question about Coil in the Q&A section about five times), it’s good to know that The Basement Collection wasn’t a half-assed cash in.

If you’ve seen him in the documentary Indie Game: The Movie or read an interview with him anywhere else, you’ll know Edmund McMillen is an extremely generous guy that gives to his fans as much as they give to him.  For only $4, The Basement Collection is an absolute must have. Dude, get it.

Rating: 8.0 out of 10

Developer: Edmund McMillen & friends(!)
Platform: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC

Why Indie Games Are The Future

More and more I feel violated as a consumer when I buy a game from a major company. Whether you can only get the real ending to a plot in downloadable content you have to pay for or you’re only getting 80% of the content that’s already on the disc at full price while being charged extra for the last 20% – it seems that a game company’s only objective now is to bleed out every drop of profit from as many places as much as they can.

Don’t get me wrong, I get why developers do this. With the costs of developing a game and publishing them onto a console being as high as they are and with the used game industry siphoning away a ton of potential profits from a game (especially when people sell back their new games en masse just days after buying them), game developers have to find ways to maximize profits from every avenue possible to even stay in business. One glance at this list of game studio closures since 2007 is enough to show what a shaky market they’re in. There are so many industry wide problems that cause this economic dilemma, though, that it’s not something that can be fixed overnight. Only a major change or a gradual shift away from the norm can do that. Regardless, more and more players are becoming frustrated with these business practices, and they’re buying games from major companies less and less.

It’s from this emerging vacuum then that indie games will succeed, and this is why:

1. Indie Games Cost Much, Much Less To Produce

Super Meat Boy, one of the most successful indie games of all time (as of January 2012, they’ve hit the 1,000,000 mark), cost around “$30,000” to make. According to developer Edmund McMillen, though, “we would have spent that even if we weren’t working on the game, so the real dev cost is closer to $0.” Whereas some major developers can take up to five or six years to produce one game, Super Meat Boy only took a year and a half with just a two man team whose only “expenses” were to pay rent. Less costs to produce and less time to develop = higher returns. And with cheap production avenues like Steam or self-financing sites like Kickstarter now available to replace those high publishing and financing costs of publishing a game through a major publisher – indie developers have even more ways to gain a profit than ever before. Granted, no indie game will be pulling Call of Duty numbers, but still. Very few entertainment industry pros do.

A future indie game developer rich off that sick indie cash with his mean-spirited trophy wife.

2. Indie Games Can Take Higher Risks

The more something costs to make, the less risks it can take. This applies to any industry, but with video games especially. A lot of major games released today only copy other successful games while imposing subtle changes to make it “unique.” Games made on a much smaller scale don’t gain as much from copying a major game. They don’t have the production value to do it and, at best, they can only come off like a really good cover band does when you’re kind of drunk at a bar. The thing that distinguishes one indie game from the rest is creativity, and it’s this that’s valued above all else. Indie games have to be creative because if they weren’t, no one would pay attention to them. To be unique involves taking risks, and it’s these kind of risks indie games can afford. Something new and creative can make gaming feel fresh again.

This exists by a freedom of creativity.

3. Today’s Games Are Less About Graphics and More About Aesthetics

There was a time when graphics were a game’s main selling point. If a game had archaic looking graphics, it would never sell and the critics would tear it apart mercilessly. Fortunately, though, technology has advanced to the point that a small developer can make something look appealing with just a limited set of tools and with low scale graphics. While an indie developer will never make something on the scale of Metal Gear Solid 4, they can still design their game with a certain aesthetic that can be just as, if not more, appealing than something from a major company. Minecraft, with its blocky design (that feels more at home with a mid-90’s 32 bit era game trying to emulate 3D graphics than a game from the 2010’s), has, by definition, pretty terrible graphics. Regardless, it’s not about the quality of its graphics that makes it a great looking game, it’s about the individual aesthetic it has with its retro design. Grand Turismo 5 is a hyper realistic looking game that came out in 2010 and that nobody really cares about now. Minecraft is a game that looked 10 years outdated when it came out in the same year and is still played by a rabid fanbase now.

Minecraft Guy: Still breaking hearts.

4. Indie Games Are Creator Focused

People hate the idea of big business. Even though this doesn’t stop them from supporting it in droves, a lot of people don’t like to be reminded how many faceless corporations control their lives. The same idea applies to video games. Gamers develop personal relationships with their favorite games just as much as anyone else does with any other medium of art, and when their games are changed or ruined in a sequel or an update, that personal relationship starts to fade.  An indie game developer is a person who has complete and total control of their work. People are much more willing to invest in something that they know they can develop a personal relationship with and call “their own.” Indie game developers don’t have to worry about answering to a board of investors or always looking at the bottom line, all they have to worry about is making a great game. And when so many video game developers are easily accessible on places like Twitter or Tumblr to talk about their work with you, a video game feels less like a business product and more like an artistic venture.

See? The guys who made Minecraft are pretty cool.

5. Bloated Industries Look Towards Innovators to Revolutionize It

Just like Nirvana did to alternative and indie culture in the 90’s, when something new, revolutionary, and successful comes along during a time when regular business is failing, businesses are quick to try and replicate this new thing or find more things like it. While this eventually bastardizes the creative spark that started it just like Nirvana’s grunge sound led to bands like Creed – it stills leads to two or three golden years of creativity as companies take more chances and invest in things they wouldn’t have before. While the game industry isn’t bloated enough just yet to reach its tipping point, the time is coming soon that it will start favoring creativity over business for once.

Techno Kitten Adventure

If there’s one thing that internet culture has given us more than anything else, it’s trippy cat things. Techno Kitten Adventure takes a simple helicopter game and pumps it up with flashing colors, ecstasy inducing beats, trippy imagery, and flying cats. Made by the people at 21st Street Games, this seizure inducing game is a perfect emulation of what it’s like to live inside the internet (…probably). Whether that emulation will drive you to madness or insight is up to you. Regardless, its a novelty worth investing in and it’s a lot of fun to see a game embrace it’s psychedelic side as passionately as this one does.

Techno Kitten Adventure is a freemium game that you can get through Android, iOS, XBox Live Indie Games, or Facebook. You can get a link for all of these platforms through the game’s website here.

Rocksmith

Music games have a bad rep and it’s not because they’re poorly made or they aren’t fun to play. Although you can’t stab a dragon in the face before turning into a werewolf in real life like you can in Skyrim, you can still pick up and teach yourself to play a real guitar instead of playing a simplistic imitation like Rock Band or Guitar Hero. Because of this and because learning to play guitar is a rite of passage for so many, music games get a lot of flack. Despite its appearances, though, Rocksmith isn’t a game that teaches you how to be a shallow imitation of a rockstar. It’s a piece of learning software that teaches you actual guitar.

Using a USB peripheral that plugs into your guitar, Rocksmith acts like an intelligent amp that can register and distinguish every note you play. It’s an awesome technological innovation that knows when you’re playing a song right because it can read the notes being played. Unlike other music games, Rocksmith’s goal isn’t to emulate the “rockstar” feel or burden you with unnecessary challenges – its main goal is to teach you how to play guitar. Although you can’t “fail” a song or a challenge, Rocksmith has a sensor that gauges your level of skill by the amount of notes and phrases you play correctly. The worse you do, the less notes there are to play.  The better, the more notes and chords appear until you’re playing the song in full. It’s a clever design that keeps the player from getting frustrated while still teaching them the skills necessary to be a better player.

While I’ve run into a few issues with the game incorrectly reading a note I was playing or not reading a note at all, careful tuning can often fix this. Depending on the guitar you use, you may have to come up with a few quick fixes to make it work (I have to tune the “e” a bit flat everytime I play), but I haven’t run into any major issues. A recent update just came out that now supports bass, and it works just as well as the guitar. You will need an actual guitar or bass (you can use your guitar to play bass, as an alternative) to play this, but again – this is largely a learning peripheral so if you don’t have these instruments already, then there’s no point in purchasing this game. Acoustic guitars may require additional equipment to work, but again – it all depends on the guitar.

So, how well does it work at teaching you how to play? At the start of playing this, I had absolutely no experience with guitar. I’ve tried learning how to play through books or with online resources, but they gave me more questions than they answered.  I really can’t stress enough how awesome this game is at teaching you to play guitar.  While I’m still nowhere near an expert level, it’s very encouraging to see the progress I make each day broken down into very apparent terms. Rocksmith features a handful of “arcade” games that each emphasize the practice of a certain technique, like a galaga type game that needs you to string the right notes to hit each target. Like so many other things in this, these games distract you from the monotony of practice, and after the nth round – you’ll find yourself 10 times better at playing than you were before.

Rocksmith does fall short of being a “video game,” though, and the visuals are drab and uninspiring. While there are a lot of cool pedals and other things to unlock that you can use in a “free play” mode, the venues you play in are barely indistinguishable from one another and it feels meaningless to unlock them. Despite this and despite the fact that this game won’t make you feel like a rock star, it will teach you to be one. Purists may still sneer at those learning to play guitar with a video game, but in a world where so many people argue against the value of video games already – Rocksmith is an amazing counterargument that is absolutely worth the time and money.

Rating: 9.0 out of 10

Developer: Ubisoft
Platform: XBox, Playstation, PC
Reviewed on: XBox