Thoughts

Quick, short, often niche posts about games. Sometimes they are brief looks at concepts in art, design, culture, and psychology. Other times they are reactions to specific news items or just something silly that came to mind.

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Star Ocean: First Departure ARRR!

Yesterday, PlayStation LifeStyle ran an article looking back at Star Ocean 2. I’ve always loved this game and been frustrated that I don’t have a great way to revisit it. Outside of Japan, Star Ocean 1 and 2 haven’t been made available since their physical PSP release - they didn’t even get put up on PSN digitally so they can’t be played on a Vita or PSTV. I do have them for PSP, but my PSP died several years ago. Japan got a digital release of Star Ocean 2 for PS3, Vita, and PS4, but despite persistent fan interest and the game already being translated this version did not get localized or released elsewhere.

I haven’t messed with emulators since I was a poor college student, but yesterday I officially gave up on being able to pay for these games (short of buying a replacement PSP, which… no). Within an hour of this decision, I was set up with PPSSPP and playable ISO backups of my PSP games. On a larger screen with visual improvements, remappable controls, screenshot capability (plus easy video capture via OBS), save states, fast forward capability, and cheat support. I even copied over my existing save files from my PSP.

I would happily have bought official ports of Star Ocean 1 and 2, but since that wasn’t an option, I went this route instead - and it was so fast, so easy, and provided a better experience than what Sony does sell. I didn’t pirate any games, but I easily could have and it was a good reminder that (as I’ve discussed before) piracy is symptomatic of market failure, not legal failure, and is often required for any reasonable degree of games preservation.

And then today it was announced that the PSP remake of the first Star Ocean is getting ported to PS4 and Switch - worldwide, according to Nintendo Life. I had to laugh. I’ll definitely be buying this, and Star Ocean 2 if that comes next (which seems likely; it’s the same engine and more popular). But I can’t help but reflect on the fact that these versions are probably not going to have the convenience features like save states, and if they have cheats they might be paid DLC.

(I’m also trying not to think too hard about the fact that this is probably only happening due to interest generated by the success of Star Ocean Anamnesis - a freemium gacha bullshit mobile spin-off.)

#gaming #video games #star ocean #psp #games preservation #piracy #emulation #ppsspp #arrr because the remake is first departure r but i'm talking about piracy #get it?

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Why I Don’t Want a Playdate

So, you might have heard about Playdate, since the internet is buzzing about it right now. It’s an upcoming gaming handheld, but unusual in several ways.

It’s got a 2.7 inch monochrome screen with a 400x240 resolution. It’s got a speaker and is wifi capable. And its inputs are a d-pad, two buttons, and a crank. Like, the kind you turn.

It’s priced at $149, which includes twelve games that will be released one per week and delivered over wifi. The games are intended to be surprises, and only one has been teased so far: Crankin’s Time Travel Adventure which apparently has you using the crank to control time and move a robot through his day. This game is by Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi; a few other developers are confirmed including Bennett Foddy, Zach Gage, and Shaun Inman. These twelve games are being referred to as “Season One”, so if the Playdate sells well perhaps there will be another batch of games later on.

A lot of people are excited about the Playdate, and I’m sure they’ll have a good time with it and that’s great. I’m very much a proponent of letting people enjoy things. But here’s why I, personally, am not excited about the Playdate:

Its value isn’t as a games console. It’s as membership in an exclusive club.

A lot about the Playdate makes it clear that it’s not for a mainstream audience. Its tiny black-and-white screen and few-button idiosyncratic controls make it very limited in today’s gaming landscape - you can’t exactly put Fortnite on this thing. You could barely put Tetris on it. And while the $149 price tag is lower than most game systems, most game systems will have more than twelve games available and will tell you what games will be on it. The Playdate is for people who want and can afford to pay $149 for a series of surprises based only on the street cred of a few attached names. If you don’t know who Bennett Foddy and Zach Gage are, the Playdate is not for you.

The Playdate is for people who want to be part of the exclusive group of Playdate owners and have the shared exclusive experience over the few months of “Season One” of game releases. And that’s okay, but to me it feels like a waste of potential.

There’s definitely room for both mass market games and more experimental fare, but there’s no reason the experiments have to have such a high barrier to entry. Compare Playdate to Meditations, a compilation of short games for every day of the year made by over 350 developers. There’s exactly one game available each day, again creating an experience for people to be a part of over time - but this one is actually designed to be shared. It’s a free download for Mac or Windows, not a $150 piece of proprietary and likely otherwise useless hardware.

Playdate creates a shared experience in an inherently exclusionary way, and that bothers me. I feel like it discards the great strength and potential for inclusiveness that modern games and the internet enable and for which so many people are fighting. It doesn’t hurt me that this thing exists, and ultimately I’m glad that the people who will enjoy it will enjoy it. But I can’t help but wish that the folks involved wanted to create shared experiences in a more inclusive way.

#gaming #videogames #playdate #inclusivity

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Mario Kart Tour is more gacha-based freemium shenanigans

I’ve been watching Nintendo’s mobile experiments with growing trepidation.

I loved that Super Mario Run was basically a fully-featured demo and a single budget-priced purchase for all the rest of the content. I was happy to pay for that game. I hated that the market punished Nintendo for using this strategy, and worried what Nintendo would do for its future games.

I hated that Fire Emblem Heroes was ostensibly free but monetized via a double-RNG gacha system. I hated that Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp started very chill but increasingly stuffed itself with calls to action toward the (often gacha-based) monetization, resulting in a “stressful mess”. These were both games I enjoyed a lot for a while but which turned me off due to the aggressive and exploitative monetization increasingly baked into their design. If they’d been designed as single purchases like Super Mario Run, I am confident I would have loved them. As is, I am confident they are both worse than when I left them and have no desire to return. (I did not even bother with Dragalia Lost.)

But these games weren’t Mario. Nintendo described Fire Emblem Heroes as an “outlier”, said they preferred the monetization of Super Mario Run, and that they were more interested in winning new fans than maximizing short-term profits (and apparently actually pushed CyberAgent Inc. to tone down the whale exploitation in Dragalia Lost.) So I was holding out some hope that the upcoming Mario Kart Tour would not let gacha-based monetization ruin an otherwise good game.

Hope status: dashed. The beta apparently has a gacha system for collecting drivers, karts, and gliders of varying rarities with varying bonuses on different courses. And for some reason there’s a stamina system, like there was in Fire Emblem Heroes.

So, I’m no longer holding out hope for great mobile Nintendo games. We’ve lost them to the gacha freemium hellscape that is modern mobile gaming. I’ll probably try Mario Kart Tour, because why not, but I expect to put it down about as quickly and as sadly as I put down Fire Emblem Heroes and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

I’m still optimistic for Apple’s game subscription service, though.

#gaming #video games #mobile games #mario kart tour #nintendo #monetization #super mario run #fire emblem heroes #animal crossing pocket camp #gacha

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Somehow, Bubsy: Paws on Fire! is Amazing

I did not see this coming, but it turns out that Bubsy and Bit.Trip Runner were each exactly what the other needed?

I haven’t played any other Bubsy game, so I can’t compare this to earlier ones, but reviews suggest it’s the best one yet, which I find completely believable. But I have played all the Bit.Trip Runner games (though not all of Runner3) and oddly enough, it might also be the best one of those yet.

Gone are the readability-destroying visual excesses of Runner3 - the unpredictably-moving platforms and the camera angle changes. We’re back to a Runner/Runner2-style fixed side-view camera, sufficiently zoomed out that you can see what’s coming, and obstacles behave consistently.

Gone are the misguided attempts at variety and replayability - Runner3’s bizarre vehicle sections and the confusing and repetition-requiring multiple paths and oddly-placed bonus levels of both Runner2 and Runner3. Bubsy instead provides four playable characters with their own abilities and play style, so you get frequent changes of pace but under your own control and while you do technically repeat levels multiple times, they feel totally different with each character. (One of the four actually has their own set of levels as well instead of reusing the shared levels of the other three.)

Gone are the ambiguous cues of Runner2 and Runner3 - with 150 collectibles in each level, it’s always clear where you’re supposed to go and you don’t need to rely on the obstacles to signpost the path. Instead, you’re just figuring out how to use or avoid them to follow that path.

Gone is the failure cannon from Runner2 and Runner3. It isn’t replaced with anything; it’s just gone. As it should be.

And while I’m personally requiring myself to get every collectible in each level before moving forward, that’s because I have the experience from the Runner series. The competence zone here is actually nice and big - it’s pretty easy to clear levels if you aren’t going for collectibles, so there’s a lot of room for various skill levels and improvement through practice.

It’s so good. I’ve played for about three hours today and am about a third of the way through the game. I only have two complaints:

  1. It’d be nice if the game had Runner3’s self-bonk or a return-to-last-checkpoint option in the pause menu. The only moments of sheer frustration I experience in this game are when I miss a collectible right before a checkpoint or level ending and there’s no obstacle to bonk against, so I have to restart the entire level.
  2. The characters each have a unique line of dialog for each level that they say when you start it, which is cool. Unfortunately, they also say it when you restart the level. That gets a bit old. They should probably skip that on level restarts.

Well, I guess a third complaint if you count the fact that the Switch version was delayed so I’m having to play on Steam instead. :)

#bubsy: paws on fire! #gaming #video games #choice provisions #bit.trip runner

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Bubsy.Trip Runner?

I’ve been tuning out Bubsy-related news for a while now, because why would you pay any attention to Bubsy, so I completely missed that the new Bubsy game coming out literally today is somehow a Bit.Trip Runner clone made by the actual makers of Bit.Trip Runner. WHAT.

Well, they’ve got my attention. I’ll be checking out the reviews.

I happen to be knee-deep in the Runner games right now for an article I’m working on, so the timing was actually a bit unnerving.

#gaming #video games #bubsy: paws on fire! #bit.trip runner #choice provisions

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Musou’s “Shazam” Characters

So I mentioned that before Fire Emblem Warriors, Musou characters tended to be homogeneous in capability and differentiated mainly by various trade-offs. One interesting trade-off is demonstrated by what I like to call the Shazam character - one who is normally weak, but has a transformation that makes them very powerful.

Musou games commonly have three levels of attacks. First are the combos triggered by hitting the weak and strong attack buttons in various patterns. Next are the special attacks - you gradually earn charges for these as you deal and receive damage but can only store a few. They vary between characters but are usually short-range high-damage area attacks. Finally, there’s Rage mode (that’s its name in mainline Dynasty Warriors; it gets called other things in other games). A meter fills as you perform critical hits or successful combos or similar, and when it’s full you can enter Rage, which causes the meter to drain but makes you significantly more powerful until it runs out (and it’s usually capped off with a special attack). So, you might use normal combos on fodder enemies, special attacks on officers, and Rage mode on heroes.

Young Link in Hyrule Warriors and Tiki in Fire Emblem Warriors have comparatively weak combos, but have especially powerful Rage modes - Young Link puts on the Fierce Deity Mask and Tiki transforms into a dragon. So the primary way to maximize these characters’ effectiveness is to spend as much time in Rage mode as possible - and to help with that, these characters (and only these characters, I believe) have the ability to spend special attack charges to refill the Rage meter.

They’re still fairly awkward to use in the early-to-mid-game, but if you invest in them and get the right upgrades and weapon skills, by the late game they can basically spend entire missions in Rage mode, making them extremely powerful.

This is hardly the first game to make characters with this sort of dynamic, but it occurred to me that this is very much the sort of thing you can only do in non-competitive games. If these games had versus modes, you’d basically have to ban Young Link and Tiki or they would dominate high-level play. But in single-player or even cooperative games, it’s actually okay to have this kind of imbalance. It creates interesting experiences, giving players a chance to invest in characters that then “break” the game - which in that context can be satisfying and fun.

#gaming #video games #musou #fire emblem warriors #hyrule warriors #game balance #young link #tiki

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Permanence, Patches, and Physical Media

The excellent Saints Row: The Third just came to Switch. Unfortunately, it’s reportedly plagued by performance issues and glitches - and the day one patch has been delayed.

I hate to see a game I love have a troubled launch, but the delayed patch also calls attention to the general practice of day one patches, which is common enough now that it wouldn’t have even registered to me if it weren’t delayed. It’s normal to pop in a new game - even one purchased on launch day - and have it immediately download a patch. Enough so that at least for me, it’s been easy to forget that this means the shipped game - the one you just bought - is unfinished.

And, I get it. I get that it takes time to press/burn/whatever and distribute the physical games, and from a financial perspective it makes sense to use the time between then and launch to continue to polish and improve the game rather than delay the launch (though that does also create the risk of poor early reviews due to delayed patches, as Saints Row: The Third on Switch sadly illustrates).

But one of the supposed advantages of buying games physically is that you aren’t reliant on the internet to play them. Someday, the Switch eshop servers will get shut down. If I lose the data on my Switch’s memory card after that, I won’t be able to redownload and play any of the games I bought digitally. I will still be able to play the games I bought physically. But only the unpatched versions. And looking at my shelf, for almost all of my Switch games that means a noticeably worse version of the game.

Live-service games, patches, and updates mean there’s less and less reason to buy games physically now. The preservation value of the physical media is significantly lessened. These days, I only buy physical because on consoles it often somehow costs less. (Which is its own rant for another time.)

It’s tempting to think of things we buy as permanent, but in many cases we’re really just paying for the experience of having something for some amount of time.

#saints row #gaming #video games #games preservation

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Musou Tactics

After playing Fire Emblem Warriors, I thought I was super into Musou games. After moving on to the (earlier release) Hyrule Warriors, while I do still enjoy Musou it turns out that what I was super into was Fire Emblem Warriors. In particular, its tactical depth.

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#gaming #video games #hyrule warriors #fire emblem warriors #persona 5 scramble #musou

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Easy Mode: You Gotta Want It

So, one of the positions in the whole Sekiro/Soulsborne/difficulty/easy-mode debate is what I would sum up as “easy mode should be there for the players who need it.” A couple of examples:

  • Jarrod Johnston explains why he’s no longer anti-Easy, mentioning that previously he “never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for [him] to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment.”

  • Mark Brown explains his complicated view on questions like “Should Dark Souls have an Easy Mode?”, making a few statements like, “I’m in favor of giving people more ways to play if they need them…” but emphasizing the importance of making sure players know what the intended experience is. He also describes Celeste’s Assist Mode by saying, “This isn’t an easy mode that I might switch down to if the game’s kicking my butt. It’s an assist mode that’s just there for those who really feel they need it.”

On the surface, I’m in agreement with these folks - we all want easy modes or similar accommodations in games. We’re on the same side of the overall debate. But I’d sum up my position slightly differently, as “easy mode should be there for the players who want it.” It’s only one word of difference, but I think it’s an important one.

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#gaming #video games #easy mode #sekiro: shadows die twice #accessibility #soulsborne #intended experience #difficulty #gatekeeping