Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A boy and his blob for Wii: Initial Impressions

A video that pretty well represents my experience playing this game. I elaborate below.

The video sums up my initial impressions of this game pretty well, so I won't blab about “blob” too much this go-round. I want to have plenty of material for my final review. I've played for a little over an hour so far. As the video shows, the game is really charming – one of the most charming I've ever seen. When I realized that I could make the little boy hug his blob, the game reached a whole new level of adorable. Then when my own little almost-two-year-old boy started calling our “Blob! Blob!” around the house and bouncing on the bed whenever the little boy in the game bounced on his blob-trampoline, the game's charm soared to even higher heights.

From my Pokemon Heargold and Flower reviews, you already know that cute stuff works on me. I can get interested in a game if the game is at least pleasant to look at. I sheepishly admit that I pick most products based mostly on their aesthetics whether it is a car or a dish towel, furniture or a computer. Whatever is most aesthetically pleasing is usually what I want, especially if it matches something I already have. Ben figured out that personality quirk of mine quickly. He is, for the most part, accepting and patient about it. The only times he gets really frustrated is when I rearrange all the furniture, neglecting to care whether or not he will be able to plug in and connect all of his various electronic belongings. Ben is much more practical and logical in his product preferences. Compromise is key with our household purchases, that's for sure.

Back to the game. Wikipedia describes it as a 2D puzzle platformer (one of these days I'll get that lingo down). The game is about a little boy who befriends a blob that has come to earth from its home lima-bean-shaped planet, Blobolonia. The blob transforms into useful objects like ladders, trampolines, balloons and parachutes to help the little boy explore the lush forested land outside his tree house. The blob comes to the boy whenever the boy calls him and it will stay put if the boy scolds him. Jelly beans are fed to the blob to make it transform (for example, a blue jelly bean turns the blob into a balloon). The transforming blob part is fun and there are signs that tell you which transformation to use, so the puzzles aren't as difficult as I had originally feared. Better gamers may not appreciate the constant help, but I did! There are also frequent checkpoints that save my game for me which is amazing. No terrible save catastrophes await me in this game.

Black blobs patrol the forests and kill you if you touch them. The kill is like a slow-motion faint which I find a bit disturbing, especially because, when I play, it happens often. There are spikes on the ground that can kill the little boy, too, and I frequently can't even tell they are there until he's in the midst of fainting. It doesn't feel good to accidentally “kill” this adorable child. It didn't help that the first time I played I'd just downed two adult beverages. It took me about nine tries to jump over one of the black blobs. I thought a couple drinks would loosen me up and help me jump better, but that was not the case. I'd like to blame the Wii controller, but I don't think I can. I admit it. I have a jumping problem. I'm just not good at jumping in video games; I jump too far or not far enough. It doesn't seem to matter what game I play. Sadly, a high percentage of video games require jumping ability which is, seriously, one of the main reasons I don't play more games.

The Wii remote and nun chuck is a bit of a change, though. They feel so different than all the other two-handed controllers I've ever used. I keep having to try every button, trigger and joystick to make the little boy successfully call his blob or drop a jelly bean or switch between transformation items. Then, since I've tried so many different buttons, I'm not sure which button actually worked so I face the same problem the next time. I'm glad that I at least don't have to aim the Wii remote at the screen much. Either my hands are too shaky or that Wii remote is too sensitive or something, but the select arrow doesn't go where my brain wants it to go. I have most of the controls down at this point and find that I am making my way through this game without too much trouble. I look forward to seeing what else this game has to offer in my assigned remaining two hours. So far not much has changed in the game. What you've seen in that video is about all I've seen in the past hour of play. Who knows. I might be staring at those trees and that white blob for two more hours, in which case, it's a good thing they're cute!

This game made me think a lot about video games - what I like and don't like about them - in a whole new way. I plan on discussing these video game thoughts, questions, and opinions in depth in my final review of this game. Until then, I have black-blob jumping and forest exploring to do. There are jelly beans and treasure chests to eat. “Come on, blob!”

Friday, June 25, 2010

This week I have three similes to describe my experience playing Pokemon HeartGold:

Playing Pokemon Heartgold is like trying to save for a new car. Your old one isn't good enough, but in order to save enough money for a new one you have to get to your job which you can't do if your car doesn't work so you just have to keep fixing your old car, using up any money you could be saving for a new one. So you just put a few bucks at a time away hoping that one of these days you'll have saved enough for a better car. The game is all about ncremental advantages. It's about inching your way to a better position.

Playing Pokemon Heartgold is like going to the gym to lose weight. When you first start going it's painful and embarrassing, tedious and frustrating. But then you start to lose weight. Going to the gym becomes a numbers game. What will the scale say tomorrow? How many more minutes on the treadmill will result in how great a difference on the scale? Watching the numbers change and your body change, too, becomes exhilarating and entices you to keep going to the gym and keep losing more and more weight.

Playing Pokemon Heartgold is like knitting a scarf in Florida. The time spent might not actually be productive when you consider the end result, but it feels productive while you're doing it. Knitting a scarf and playing Pokemon require about the same amount of concentration and care - enough to get by, but best done while in the car or in front of the television so you feel like you're multitasking your time-wasting activities. It's something to keep your hands and brain busy and distracted. It's something to do. Plus, there are times when the scarf turns out to be surprisingly beautiful.

Pokemon. The Grind. The Numbers Game. The Mindless Addiction.

I played Pokemon for seven hours and 22 minutes. The first six and a half hours of gameplay was spent just trying to accomplish the goals Ben set out for me. Two revelatory moments made me play another voluntary hour after my mission had been accomplished. The first revelatory moment was when I received that gym badge which I will talk about in a bit. The second revelatory moment entails telling a little story.

I had reached my first gym after a countless number of battles while wandering the streets and grassy paths of Cherrygrove City and adjoining areas. I had learned to trap, trade, and battle Pokemon. I had learned my way around and had spoken to numbers of people who taught me many things about Pokemon. I had played for about three hours and was ready to be finished with this game, though I wasn't exactly sure what more I could say about it that I hadn't already said in my initial impressions review. I survived the many trainer battles in the gym and felt pretty prepared to beat this last trainer and find out my next game assignment. Then a level 14 Pidgeotto crossed my path and I realized that, not only was I NOT leaving this gym with a badge, I wasn't going to be able to get this badge without a lot more work. My Pokemon were ill-matched against these bird Pokemon to begin with and none of them were anywhere near strong enough to go against a level 14 Pokemon of any type. The only useful Pokemon I had was Doggy, the fire Pokemon Ben had traded me, and he had leveled so quickly that he had turned against me and was rudely ignoring my commands!

After I realized that I would not be earning my gym badge anytime soon, I pouted for a while and Ben suggested I buckle down and begin The Grind. By that he meant slowly, patiently, and strategically leveling the Pokemon I had while trapping more Pokemon and then leveling them. All the while I must find the best patches of grass with the strongest enemies to level as efficiently as possible and make sure that I gave my Pokemon the rest they needed even if that meant going back and forth between the tall grasses and the Poke Center. This was going to take some time. With an exaggerated sigh I set back out to wade in the grass and wait for enemies. I collected a bug type I named J.J. and a Pidgey I named Dwight (even though I realized later I should have named him Larry...get it? Larry BIRD? Oh well...maybe the next HootHoot I find). Ben hatched and traded Boozer and D-Wade for my Jameer and Gortat (a good trade, wouldn't you say?!?)

That evening I battled my brains out. Literally. I felt like I had no brains left after all those battles. I called it quits for the night and closed the DS. On my way to turn off the bedroom light while holding the closed DS in my left hand, my right hand collided with the top of the DS and the game popped out! Like any mature adult woman would do, I screamed loudly, “NOOOOO! I HATE video games!” Ben's response was, “You should have saved. That was your fault.” This exchange is very similar to other moments in our household. Like the time I reached into the 400 degree oven with my bare hands to pull out a cookie sheet simply because I hadn't thought about putting on oven mitts first. Typical Jess screech: “Ow! Ow! Ow! I hate ovens and myself!!” Typical Ben response: “Why didn't you put oven mitts on first?”

So Ben went to sleep next to me while I seethed in bed for a little while trying to decide if I should sleep, too, or if I should get up and re-level my Pokemon. I was determined to finish up this game as quickly as possible, so I returned to The Grind going to bed more satisfied after Carmelo reached level 16, high enough to probably beat a level 14 Pidgeotto in the morning. I snuggled up with my dog and my blanket and happened to glance over at the baby monitor only to see that it was not on. I knew that Jhonen was teething and, therefore, prone to wake up in the middle of the night crying. I got up and turned the monitor on, then returned to bed. About ten seconds later, as if I were a master of telepathy, I heard Jhonen's wails over the baby monitor. I groaned and heaved myself back out of bed, then turned off the monitor so Jhonen's cries wouldn't wake up Ben. I found my way down the dark hallway to Jhonen's room where he sat up crying in his bed. I pat his back for awhile until he fell back to sleep, then went back to my bed to try and get tired and comfortable. I'm about to fall asleep when I look over and see....you guessed it....the baby monitor was off.

Suddenly I knew what Pokemon was trying to tell me. That Pokemon World is just like our own darn world. These Pokemon are just like us. And the way we play Pokemon games mirrors how we live our own lives. It sounds ridiculous, but it's true.

With that breakthrough in mind, I will now return to my three similes.

Playing Pokemon Heartgold is like going to the gym to lose weight. It's that good old Number Game. Life's all about number games. Credit scores. Diminishing car payments. Salary raises. School years. Wedding anniversaries. We mark our lives and measure our successes with numbers, amazingly arbitrary numbers at times, but we don't mind because it's a way to make sense of things. Numbers give us something to look forward to and a way to organize the years and days and seconds. Watching numbers inch towards their goal is exciting and reaching the desired number is even better. In Pokemon, it is ludicrous how exciting it is to watch your Pokemon reach higher and higher levels and you are richly rewarded once you have reached certain ones. Sometimes you have to work hard for those numbers. You have to metaphorically sweat and ache to try to get those numbers on the scale where you want them. Sometimes those numbers creep along at a maddeningly slow pace and then you learn you just spent the last 45 minutes in the wrong patch of grass.

Which brings me to the fact that playing Pokemon Heartgold is also like trying to save for a new car. You can work and work for hours and days and years for small, incremental advantages hoping that, eventually, the hard work pays off and you reach that desired number (or gym badge). Then, in between all this hard work, you're faced with other distractions that slow you down. Pokemon has many of these distractions (in the game, they are called “features”). Throughout the game you're trying to catch Pokemon and level and evolve and breed in order to get to the gyms and earn all the gym badges while also talking with friends and professors and family (your Mom is there to encourage you in the game and save money for you since she doesn't trust you to save for yourself...tell me this isn't like real life). In the midst of all that, though, you have to go shopping at the Poke-Mart. You are forced to make small talk with boring strangers. You get telemarketing style phone calls. Then there are the little obnoxious moments that happen to me all the time in both the game and in my life. These are moments like walking up the stairs, realizing I have left something downstairs, going downstairs, and then having to go back up again. In the game I was constantly walking up a ladder and accidentally pushing down and going back down the ladder. This happens with doors, too. I walk in the door and somehow accidentally end up back out the door. In the game I tried to battle with my friend, Jack, through a wireless connection and we ended up inexplicably disconnecting several times. It was just like playing phone tag or having a bad cell phone signal or losing an important email.

(An Example of Small Talk)

As I mentioned in my final review of Retro Game Challenge, the more obstacles you encounter and the more you have to struggle to attain a goal or to get a win, the greater the reward and the better the feeling of satisfaction. Something happened when I earned that gym badge. I got that gym badge in my hot little hands and realized that I wanted to keep playing! I received rewards I felt that I'd earned. Not only that, I had grown attached to my Pokemon roster. I felt like the coach of an actual basketball team, trying to make all my little Pokemon reach their full potential to make my team the best they could be. I was making plays and training my players. I was pulling players who weren't doing well and substituting better players. I felt actual pride in my Carmelo when he leveled up and evolved.

Pokemon team roster

It sounds stupid, but I was talking to a friend who casually plays this game, too. I told her that it took me a while to get into this game and she said, “me too, but then I earned that first gym badge and I was hooked.” For some reason, I had the same exact experience. With the gym badge comes lots of money, lots of experience points, and your traded Pokemon stop disobeying you. Rewards like this work on people in real life, too. I don't see Ben for a good portion of the year because he has to help get Madden NFL football games on store shelves by a certain date. Every year is hard and annoying and then the game gets out and he gets time off and bonuses and sometimes raises and promotions and the rewards help to make up for the hardships...mostly....

Not only does the game reflect life, but I noticed that the way I play this game as opposed to how Ben plays this game says a lot about who we are as people, too! I mentioned before how Ben told me I couldn't be mad at the game because I forgot to save. He later told me that he saves after every battle. What?? That seems crazy to me, but it doesn't surprise me that it doesn't seem crazy to him. While I'm reaching into the oven barehanded, Ben avoids reaching into the oven, period. He will drive a mile out of his way so as not to have to make a left-hand turn. If he feels like he's getting the sniffles he will gulp down two gallons of orange juice. He is careful, almost to a fault. He is methodical. He doesn't get lost. He doesn't stress out about what to name each Pokemon. He just names them all Doggy which he finds both efficient and amusing. He'll play in whatever way is most sensible or whatever is most funny. This is how he plays Pokemon and it is how he is in his day to day life.

I, on the other hand, plunge along trying my hardest to do everything right, getting impatient when I do something wrong, but not wanting to quit because I set a goal for myself and I want to see it through. Keeping my Pokemon happy is of utmost importance to me and watching them do well keeps me going in the slow times. I loved learning about the different types of Pokemon and traveling around the cities just like I love to meet different types of people and travel all over the world. I enjoyed the art style and the aesthetics of Pokemon. I couldn't wait to see what new type of Pokemon I'd have to battle next. It was fun to explore that world.

I mean, it may seem sort of obvious that whatever we do will somehow reflect who we are. This game struck me as particularly reminiscent of life in a way that completely surprised me because, on the surface, it seems like a silly “kid” game. Just like we are who we are and we play Pokemon like we play Pokeon, we also like what we like. Playing Pokemon is like knitting. It is something that fills the time. In my last review of this game, I spoke about all my gaming prejudices and why I feel like some games are a waste of time and some aren't. After playing this game, I think it all comes down to liking what you like. Some people think running marathons is amazing. I think it sounds like torture. Some people want to be comedians. I think standing up in front of people and trying to make them laugh sounds like the most terrifying thing you could ever try to do. Some people like Halo and some people like Guitar Hero and some people like Barbie's Horse Adventures and some very odd people like all three. I like puzzle games and music games. We like what we like and we fill the time we're given however we think best to fill it.

We have a certain amount of time here in Our World and we spend it in purposeful, beautiful, heart-shattering, earth-improving moments and we spent it on Facebook and on the toilet and in bed and going up and down stairs and we spend it knitting and learning guitar and playing Pokemon. We train, we travel, we meet new people, we set goals, we watch the hours pass, we evolve, we level up. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we're rewarded for our success. This sounds lofty for a Pokemon game, but I think the game desires to be lofty. To quote the game intro, “On your travels, we hope that you will meet countless people and, through them, achieve personal growth. This is the most important objective of this adventure.”

I hope that for myself, too, and for all of you.

(Go, Old Kurt! Go! You gotta love Old Kurt.)

Will I play this game again? I think so! I'm not addicted to it. I have lots of other “knitting” to do: writing these reviews, taking care of my own little-boy-Pokemon, cooking dinners for my family, and teaching kids about art at the museum. But I wouldn't mind traveling to Pokemon World now and then. Like the game says, there's a world of people to meet.

I might even bump into myself while I'm there.

Or maybe I'll bump into a boy and his blob! My next game assignment is to play three hours of a game called a boy and his blob, my first Wii game. The box art promises a cute white blob friend who will help me "battle baddies and bosses through 40 puzzle-packed levels" in "a tale of friends, heroes and...jelly beans?" Stay tuned! It could be delicious.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pokemon Mission: Accomplished

Due to a headache (surprisingly, not Pokemon-induced) I'm not going to post my final review tonight as planned. There's so much to write about! It's crazy! So I'm just going to announce that I have successfully traded three Pokemon, four of my Pokemon are level ten or higher, and today I earned my first gym badge. I have much to tell about my time in Pokemon World, but for now I will just brag like a proud kiddie pageant Mom about her very first Pokemon, Carmelo. He was once but a tiny Chikarita, newly trapped. Just look at him now. A level 17 Bayleef with a Razor Leaf attack that can make a wild Rattata faint in just one hit. (Sigh) They grow up so fast.

Proud parent.

Look for my final review (wordy, but a goody) in the next day or two! For now, my Pidgey, Dwight, needs leveling. Off to Azalea City!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Pokemon Heartgold: Initial Impressions

Gamer Wife Project: Pokemon

My brother and I are eight years apart in age. When he was obsessed with yo-yos and Power Rangers, I was obsessed with jazz band and boys. When he was collecting Pokemon and pogs, I was collecting yearbook signatures and college application forms. In some ways I thought of him more as a son than as a brother. I have trouble remembering what interests he had at what age, but I know that he was a Pokemon fanatic. I remember, in particular, a poster he had hung in his bedroom. The poster pictured row after row of labeled Pokemon creatures. I remember being really impressed with my brother because he had learned the names of every single one of the Pokemon on the poster. I also remember being annoyed with the marketing of Pokemon products to my brother. The Pokemon tag line, Gotta Catch 'Em All should have really been, Gotta Buy 'Em All because that's what my brother really wanted to do. Posters and cards, plush toys and video games, he had to collect all the Pokemon paraphernalia. Pokemon was like the McDonalds of toys. They wanted to make kids stuff their fat faces with Pokemon products and then beg for more. Because of that, I've always been a little anti-Pokemon, other than thinking some of the creatures on my brother's posters were cute.

While we were dating in college, Ben bought a Pokemon game because it was really cheap and because he thought buying it would be funny. He has a really sick love of purchasing things he thinks are gross or stupid or at least so gross or stupid they're funny. The half empty box of stale, green-colored-cream filled Shrek Twinkies are one example of a joke purchase. The picture on the side of the box is what really secured the sale:

Celebrating boston's victory with these

Like those Shrek Twinkies, most of Ben's joke purchases end up photographed, tweeted about and then relegated to a shelf where they'll sit until we move again and I make Ben purge. Occasionally the joke purchases actually see some use. He bought a pair of really gaudy red and yellow flowered swim shorts as a joke once and they have, since, become his main pair. He allocates very little time for clothes shopping and I think he feels he put in his quota of swim trunk shopping time already so he just wears the gaudy ones. A few times the joke purchases have surprised him by not actually being as terrible as he had expected. He bought the game 50 Cent Blood on the Sand as a joke and I think he actually ended up playing it a lot and liking it! Pokemon is a rare example of a joke purchase that turned into one of his favorite purchases of all time. That $13 Pokemon Ruby game purchase created a lifelong Pokemon fan. (or should I say, addict?)

My brother and my husband both love this darn Pokemon World. How is it possible? What is it about these bizarre little creatures with their equally bizarre names and their evolutions and inexplicable need to battle each other that is so appealing? In order to discover the answer to this question, I will have to delve into this Pokemon World for myself like an undercover secret agent. It's like an episode of Alias over here. In order to infiltrate this Pokemon World I am going to have to compromise my moral code. I'm going to have to play a stop-and-talk-to-everything game...the kind of game I've carefully avoided these past 29 years. I don't have the patience ot the interest in playing games where you have to stop and talk to every Tom, Dick, and garbage can you come across. It's especially infuriating when half the things you stop to talk to just want to give you a bunch of small talk. “Hi Jess! Don't you just love Pokemon? Your Chikarita is so cute. I wish I had one.” Thanks, lady, for taking up 10 seconds of my life. I still have a tree and a mailbox to talk to before I hand this mystery egg over to Professor Oak and you have not provided me with any useful Pokemon hints or given me any free potions or antidotes. Thanks a lot.

Also: can I become so engaged in collecting and naming Pokemon that I don't mind playing the run-around-a-town-to-complete-a-pointless-mission sort of game? Can the Pokemon's cuteness be enough to get me to overlook those dreadful battles? I can't find anything interesting about slowly taking turns hitting and being hit by attacking enemies. It's like watching chess on TV. It has to be the most boring thing about any video game and yet so many video games are like that. Why? I also want to find out what the goal of this game is. Is there ever an end? Can I like a game that is never-ending? I tend not to. Also, why do I have all these game prejudices? Why is it that I can play Picross, Lumines, and Guitaroo Man for hours and not consider it a total waste of my time like I do so many other games? How will Ben and I play this game together? I hear something about trading Pokemon, but I'm an hour in and I only have one and I barely know how to play. This game is one big time suck! And why are Pokemon games named after the contents of a jewelry box (emerald, ruby, diamond, silver, gold, etc.) These are just a few of the questions I will try to answer on this undercover operation. Fifty-seven minutes in Pokemon World has not yet provided these insights.

That aside, this game has some temptations that might turn me into a double agent. Pokemon is easy to play (relief!) I have already completed my first mission with great success and, as a result, I have been awarded a Pokedex with which to keep track of all my Pokemon encounters. The Pokemon and the little villages are cute and fun to discover. Pokemon World is an imaginative and relatively charming world, despite being completely silly. I find myself laughing a lot at the dialogue in this Poke-centric world. Humans and Pokemon apparently co-exist, but it seems that humans in this World are completely obsessed with Pokemon. Pokemon are all these people talk about. You can just walk in and out of stranger's houses and all they'll do when you walk in is tell you about how to keep your Pokemon happy or how to help your Pokemon evolve by being extra nice to it. It's like if we all suddenly had lots of dogs and all we talked about were our dogs and all we do all day long is keep our dogs happy or train our dogs to be the fiercest fighters and then fight our dogs against other dogs. Our dogs go with us wherever we go and we only carry things around with us that will help our dogs in case they are sick or tired or need something to help them fight better. Speaking of which, my dog could be a Pokemon. I mean, look at her!

Leela Likes the New Bed, Too!

The best thing about this game is the ability to name everything. I love naming things. I could name things all day long. I've decided to name all the people and Pokemon in this game after famous basketball players. So far, I have one Pokemon, a Chikarita, named Carmelo and then there's Kobe, the villain boy desperate to become the best Pokemon trainer in the world. For some reason, this really cracks me up. The cuteness of the Pokemon and my interest in naming them will hopefully keep me going through those long nights of unthinkably boring battles and missions.

Is Ben hoping Pokemon will be my gateway drug to other, more grown up RPGs like Final Fantasy? I imagine him in the dark hallway outside our bedroom door. He sneaks a Pokemon Heartgold DS case out from under his dolphin embroidered I Heart Florida joke T-shirt and whispers, “Here, little lady, give it a try. Don't worry. This one's on me. I think you'll like it.”

So far I've avoided dabbling in games like this like I've avoided dabbling with cocaine. I've seen what Pokemon does to people and have found it best to steer clear. But I have a duty to perform here, people. I have questions to answer. I have a Chikarita to battle against a Rattata! Go, Carmelo! Go!

If you don't hear from me in a week's time, start to worry. In the meantime, I have Pokemon gyms to infiltrate and Pokeballs to fill.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS: Final Review

I promised that I would write a new post as soon as Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS had any substantial impact on me. When I chose the word impact, I intended it to mean “a forceful consequence" or "a strong effect” as used in the sentence, “the game had an important impact on my thinking.” Then I arrived at game two, stage three, the Ninja Robot Haggle Man challenge where I have to clear level four without dying. I now know that "impact" was the correct word to use, but the more appropriate meaning of the word, in this case, is found in the dictionary as follows: “the striking of one body against another.”

In the thesaurus I found three similar words that may be even more appropriate to describe my experience:

Contact – the physical coming together of two or more things - as in level 4 little blue enemy guys continuously coming together with my little blue Haggle Man and killing him after playing through the first three levels completely unscathed. Why, level four? WHY?

Bump – an impact as from a collision – as in the collision of my Haggle Man and challenge three. I played challenge three for about 75% of the car ride from Deltona, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia and never cleared it.

Slam – a forceful impact that makes a loud noise – as in the sound a DS Lite makes when being thrown across a car.

Yes, this game made impact. The third stage and I had a head-on collision and my Haggle Man did not make it out alive. (The DS, luckily, proved impervious to my assaults.)

To use the previous definition of the word impact, this game did have an impact on me. It taught me that old games are hard!

I expected Afterburner Climax to be difficult for me as it did not involve a plastic guitar or colored blocks. Then I played it and, although I was terrible and didn't know what I was doing, I somehow beat that game. I still can't quite believe it. The game was just really forgiving. Then I heard I had to play God of War III and I thought there was no way I'd be able to play that game, especially after I saw the hordes of skeleton beasts. But then I cracked my fire-whip a few times and BAM, before long my God hands were slapping high fives and giving out nanny-nanny-boo-boo waggles at those panty-wetting she-skeletons! The God of War puzzles got me a bit stuck, but that was mostly because I just didn't care enough about the game to solve them, not because I couldn't eventually solve them if I tried hard enough.

Then I arrive at Retro Game Challenge, a game that featured cute children playing old arcade-y games. I thought to myself, "This is great! I can do this! It's going to teach me to play video games just like Arino is going to teach little Clover!" The game was all so silly with its crazy demon head and its game geek magazines and its pro-tips and cheat codes and its cheesy diologue and then...oh Sh$t I can't play this F#$%ing game!! What the f#$%?!?

Retro Game Challenge

I already admitted to you that Ben played one of the challenges for me, but I didn't want that sort of cheating to become too regular an occurrence. I figured I'd let him get me to the next game and then I'd hopefully sail through a few challenges before things got really super hard. That did not prove to be the case. Determined to beat RTG on the long ride to Atlanta, the first hour went by quickly. I was glad to have something to entertain me. Then the second hour came and went and I noticed Ben beginning to laugh at me. I was starting to nervous-jump a little higher than normal. Towards the end of the second hour I had slammed the DS shut a few times, putting it in my lap for a moment to do some deep breathing exercises. By the third hour my eyes were stinging and the DS was almost in as much mortal peril as my poor little Haggle Man was in level four.

After that third hour Ben was telling me to put the DS away and try later when I could calm down a bit. I refused to stop. These level four enemies were not the boss of me! I could DO this! Knees up around my chin, my blazing red eyes wide and crazy, I clutched the DS like Kratos clutched his bloody swords. The more agitated and intense I became, the worse Haggle Man performed! I tried again and again, Ben chuckling anxiously, my Mom hiding in the backseat, Jhonen pretending to sleep. Finally, I chucked the DS across the car; My Retro Game Challenge road trip experience giving new meaning to the term road rage.

I had to stop playing. Haggle Man had defeated me and I had defeated my Haggle Man. I had failed. These old games are hard.

The failure had more bite than normal because I actually do like this game, especially Ninja Robot Haggle Man. In that game, you are dropped into a stage with several raised platforms with lots of lettered and differently-colored doors. You can go in and out of the doors to either hide from enemies or kill enemies. If you go through the doors in alphabetical order, the doors will change color to match the previous letter. Same-colored doors open simultaneously, allowing you to kill multiple enemies at once. After a certain number of enemies are killed, you face a boss. The boss from that stage becomes the enemies of the next stage. It's fun, but it's hard!

I think I failed because, unlike Clover, Arino, and my own Grand Master, Ben, I wasn't playing these difficult games in the eighties. When games were at their hardest, Ben and other little Charles in Charge watching, scrunch-sock or Jams short-wearing boys and girls were mastering them. They say the younger you introduce kids to a foreign language the better their chances of fluency. Well, as I've mentioned in previous posts, video games have a language all their own and I'm getting a really late start at learning it.

Haggle Man

However, like little Clover, I have my own Arino to help me learn. While playing this game, it was fun to imagine that the boy and girl were little Ben and little Jess hanging out in my childhood living room playing these games. I've always liked to look at old pictures of Ben as a kid and imagine him playing with Transformers and reading comic books and talking about video games. I don't know if he would have given a girl (gross!) the time of day back then, but if he did, and we had been friends, I bet he would have been the patient, kind video game coach that he is today. I saw it firsthand this evening.

Ben bought Jhonen the new Toy Story 3 game for the PS3. Jhonen brought him the game case and said “Buzz Show!” Ben played it for him for awhile and Jhonen seemed to like to watch Woody jumping onto a train and riding his trusty horse, Bullseye. Then Ben let Jhonen play as Buzz Lightyear. I was trying to write this review at the time, but I couldn't stop watching Jhonen trying to play this game. First, he tried every button and seemed to really like rotating the joystick best. I watched his face as he began to realize that he was controlling Buzz Lightyear's movements. He started to explore. He ran Buzz in circles. He ran Buzz into a rock. He got stuck...and then unstuck! He was learning to play and he's not even two years old.

He will surely be fluent before we know it. Yet I wonder how his skills will differ from the gaming skills of those 1980's kids who grew up with Ninja Gaiden, Contra, and Mega Man (games Ben tells me are really hard.) I don't know enough to speak with any real conviction, but it seems that perhaps slick marketing and sales figures and must-have-new-features and amazing 3D graphics have watered video games down a bit in order to appeal to the widest possible audience. Still, I watched Jhonen learn a lot tonight. He learned about cause and effect. He learned about problem solving. He learned about hand-eye coordination. Plus, he connected in a new way with Buzz Lightyear, his very favorite character.

Tonight I learned that beating hard games is satisfying. The harder the challenge, the more satisfying the win. I didn't have many wins, but the ones I had felt good. I can only imagine how good a cleared stage three of Ninja Robot Haggle Man would feel!

Speaking of challenges, my Game Master Ben has given me my next game assignment. The fun and coincidental part of this assignment is that, like Clover and Arino, Ben and I will be playing together! I will be playing Pokemon Heart Gold while Ben plays Pokemon Soul Silver, both on the Nintendo DS. I have been challenged to get four Pokemon to level ten, perform at least three trades, and collect the first gym badge. Sounds so romantic.

I wonder what sort of impact Pokemon will have on me. I already know how dorky I felt just now, writing that I have to collect a gym badge in a Pokemon game. The Pokemon games are possibly nearer and dearer to Ben's heart than I am, though, so I'd better just hope that this next game assignment has a positive, rather than negative, impact on my marriage.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Retro Game Challenge for Nintendo DS: Initial Impressions

Retro Game Challenge

Retro Game Challenge synopsis: My child character is challenged to complete stages in various game parodies of old Nintendo games from the 1980's. The game is based on a popular Japanese television show. The premise of the show is that a guy named Arino must play video games, despite his being a poor video game player (appropriate!). According to the game manual, Arino, “having been utterly defeated by his friends in every 'current-gen' multiplayer game, longed to become a gaming master. His obsessive desire for complete dominance in the gaming world spawned a digitalized version of himself in his Nintendo DS (huh?)...and he began to haunt gamers around the world with retro game challenges.” The premise is goofy, but eerily relevant to this blog and my Grand Master Ben's own game challenges for me! In the game, Arino becomes a 1980's era kid again to help my kid character play through the challenges. Each game comes complete with its own game manual and even Game Fan Magazines that you can read to get gameplay tips.

I remember my very first video game I ever played pretty well, though I can't remember the actual title of the game. It, too, was a handheld game, played on its own special device - the little console being what I remember most vividly. The console was yellow and black, sleek and shiny and aerodynamic, shaped like the little jet sprites that once jerked across its squarish screen. A silver toggle lever moved you, the little green triangle at the bottom of the screen, right and left. I think there was a button or two for shooting. Red and green jet-like figures fly at you and shoot little colored dash missiles at them while racking up as many points as possible. It was my Dad's toy, but I played it as much as he did. The reason I remember the game so vividly, though, is because of the accident.

My Mom was driving me somewhere – probably to dance class or the mall or something. I was playing this game as we drove and I was doing really well, probably the best I'd ever played, though I was having a hard time seeing the picture because it was sunny and I had to keep the screen shielded by a shadow. Then the shadow disappeared and I couldn't see any longer and I got shot down. Game Over. I was really mad at the sun and really wanted to know my score because I was pretty sure that, even though I'd died, I may have still beat my previous high score. Problem is, I couldn't see the number. I begged my mother to read me the score. She said, “I can't read the score right now. I'm driving.” But I wouldn't let it go. So I started whining and pleading until she gave in. She took the game from me and tried to shadow the screen with her hand to see my score and that's when we rear-ended the car in front of us. Everyone was fine. There's no real tragic ending to the story. I think it was just a little fender-bender. I just know that I felt really guilty for whining at my Mom to see my score and I remember that video game being the source of our car accident.

I have written and rewritten this first game review for Retro Game Challenge (RGC)and I can't seem to focus on any one theme for this post. Maybe the problem is just how completely different this game is from my last assignment. RGC is decades and oceans separated from the beach babes and beach boobs of Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2. That game was a very focused experience whereas RGC is about a lot of different things. This one game is really eight different games all based on eight other games, all of them being completely different types of games with several challenges I must complete within each game. Add to all that the time travel, the crazed Game Master Arino, the kids and the breaking of the fourth wall and I'm feeling as scattered writing about this game as this game is scattered. So far I have started writing about portable gaming, arcades, meta-fiction, early gaming, gaming magazines, top-down shooters, platformers, parodies, and Japanese television programming. No one topic feels right. So far nothing has really struck me as being more or less important than anything else in this game. Maybe the problem is simply that this game is really difficult. Unlike Dead or Alive, I can't fake my way through mini-games and then go shopping and buy sunglasses for my girlfriends. I actually have to beat each challenge or I can't continue. I can see why Ben is having me play 5 hours of RGC. I have spent 2 hours on it already and have just recently reached the second game. Ouch. How can you review something you can't play?

Or maybe the writer's block is the result of a guilt-ridden 1980's little-girl-gamer still hearing the car crunch sound in her ears after these two long decades since The Accident.

My initial experience with RGC was sort of a series of accidents. I was shocked at how well I did on the first few stages of the first game, Cosmic Gate, a Galaga clone. My first challenge was to clear five levels without getting a Game Over and I only had to try twice to clear the stage. This was what young Arino said to my character, Clover:

Retro Game Challenge

Who me? No way! I shut off the power switch proudly. I would end the evening's gaming session feeling good about myself. Then I remembered that I hadn't actually quit the game properly. Oh well. Shouldn't be a problem. I mean, surely the game saved my cleared stage. I had already moved past stage one and received my stage two challenge, so I'm sure I'll turn on the game tomorrow and it will let me begin my second challenge(successfully warp twice). Doubt about my save gnawed at me as I tried to sleep. My curiosity burned and I turned the DS back on. Sure enough, the game had not saved my cleared stage. My victory was so short-lived! Not only that, but to get back to that first stage I had to sit through a ton of blah-blah dialogue and push the A button fifty times before I could try to clear the stage again. I never know how to turn off a game. When I put the DS to sleep Ben yells at me. He always thinks I'll let the DS's battery die and lose my saves. Now, the one time I decide to turn off the DS as he repeatedly asks that I do, I lose my save.

I had no choice. I replayed the first stage and beat it handily and went into the next stage nervously. I didn't think I was understanding the whole warp concept. I read the game manual. I read the fan magazine content. Somehow I still wasn't sure I knew what I was doing. Turns out I didn't. I played stage two for an hour and fifteen minutes and got so frustrated I decided to go back and reread the warp tips. Turns out I was warping incorrectly!. I return to stage two, angry with myself for being such a careless reader. I went back and cleared it on my first try. Stage three was easy. I just had to shoot down a giant asteroid to get 15,000 bonus points which I managed to do on my second attempt. But then...already two hours into the RGC and only one game in, I am informed that my final challenge in Cosmic Gate would be to earn 200,000 points. I hadn't been paying close attention to my point totals so I had no idea if I had been getting anywhere close to 200,000 in my previous attempts. I played through as far as I possibly could. I took care to kill the boss guards before I killed the boss Insektor (the game's enemies) which I had learned from my Game Fan Magazine would earn me extra points. I tried to shoot down as many darn asteroids as I could. I played with as much focus and determination and care as possible. I got 44,000 points. I gave up, (although I was careful to quit and save properly this time). Again I wondered, how am I supposed to review a game I can't play? Even more to the point, by not having played difficult video games since my own 1980's childhood, is the learning curve too high? Can I muster the dexterity, master the timing, remember the controls and instructions long enough to get better at playing video games?

Not sure how to answer these questions, I went whining again. This time I whined to my own Grand Master and said, “Help! I don't think I can pass this stage yet.” And just like Young Arino, Ben was encouraging and patient and showed me how. In other words, we cheated. He played the fourth stage for me.

I have since moved on to the second game in the challenge: Robot Ninja Haggle Man, a parody of Mega Man. I have passed the first stage and am, again, a bit stuck on stage two, though thus far I have avoided any major accidents. Tomorrow I head off on a road trip to Atlanta – our first road trip since Jhonen was born. Again I will find myself playing a handheld video game in the car and will have to learn from my childhood mistake and try not to beg the driver (Ben) to look at my DS screen to help me figure out how to pass my next challenge (clear three stages without letting the Haggle Man fellow utilize his Chinese stars). For the sake of my husband, son, and mother's sanity, I will also try not to whine when I can't figure it out. Not whining for help may just turn out to be the biggest challenge of all.

Look for a focused and thoughtful review of this game in a few days. For now, I'm too dazed by the difficulty and confused by the instructions. I'm moving through this game in slow motion while bracing for an impact.

And when it makes an impact, I will be sure to write about it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pancake Art!

My first attempt: Afterburner Climax
(It's supposed to be a jet crashing into missiles over a bunch of flames. Use your imagination.)

Pancake Art for Afterburner Climax

My God of War III Logo: (ignore the chocolate syrup lettering...it got the runs!)

Pancake Art for God of War III

My favorite: Flower

Pancake Art for Flower

Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 for XBox 360: Final Review

Pancake Art for Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2
(Pancake art honoring Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 and my friend, Alex, Ben's DoA college gaming compadre, and also the one who introduced me to pancake art through Jim of Jim's Pancakes.)

Dear Diary,

What is wrong with this game and what is wrong with me for liking it?

I imagine the moment Ben decided to make me play Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2. (dream sequence sound) He sits slumped at a computer, stroking his beard (extra thick at the moment thanks to the looming Madden deadline). Suddenly he bolts upright in his $800 super-extra-ergo-dynamic computer chair and with an I've-got-it! pointer finger thrust into the air shouts out loud, “Flower didn't seal the deal? Fine! I'll prove to her that she can like playing the very game she hates the most!!” A maniacal laugh is heard from deep within his dark and evil lair (otherwise known as his cubical at EA) and continues for nigh on three minutes until the guy two cubes down throws a snack-table Twinkie at him over the cubicle walls and he stops to feed.

I don't usually like to ignorantly and blatantly hate things. I find it a real turn-off when people vehemently dismiss things before they can get a chance to understand them. But there are two things I will sheepishly admit to ignorantly hating and those are World of Warcraft and Dead or Alive games. I bitched freely and at great length about both before giving either one of them a try. I admit it. Two years ago, while on bed rest, pregnant with our son, I thought it would be sort of funny to get a World of Warcraft account. Ben was into the game at the time and there was some deal those marketing wizards over at WOW headquarters had concocted to get him to open more accounts by giving him a special cape or boots or something and faster leveling...something dorky like that. In any case, I thought it would be funny to utilize this forced downtime to experience World of Warcraft. I made a character (definitely, by far the best part of the game and also the best part of DoA), a hunter dwarf I appropriately named Bedrest who quickly befriended a boar I named Slippers and a white bear I named Pillow. This experience is for another post entirely, but what I'm getting at is that I tried it. I still didn't like it too much, but I tried it and I can speak badly of the game without as much guilt now and I can speak well of certain things about the game when my pride will allow me to.

Now I have been forced to play two hours of Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2, the sequel to the game I used to find Ben and his college friends playing while we were still dating. Boys, I will tell you from experience that playing this game in front of your girlfriends is not the best way to woo her. The problem isn't that we women actually feel that jealous of these animated breast-women. We are smart enough to know that any girl who is 5 feet 9 inches and 117 pounds with size G boobs would look like a blow up doll that hasn't been inflated yet. The problem is that you are playing it and maybe you aren't smart enough to know that. Maybe you find these animated boobs with legs more sexually attractive than you find us. Does the game prove that girls with melon chests and shapely butts are really what guys desire? It must, right? Or it wouldn't have been made and it wouldn't sell copies. I mean, who exactly is the audience for this game, anyway? The audience could be teeny-bopper girls who want to listen to the cheerful pop music and shop for cute bathing suits. If so, why the bouncing boobs and gratuitous butt shots? Are there really men who can stand all the gift-wrapping, shopping, and friendship political maneuvers for any significant length of time?

When I first played this game, I was just as disgusted as I remember being when I watched my then-boyfriend and his friends play this game for hours in college. The game makes women look like catty, superficial, selfish sex-pots who want nothing more from life than presents and a pool. Watching my boyfriend playing this feminist nightmare of a game, I got angry at him in a huffy, boys-are-so-gross sort of way and wrote the game off. Now, eight or so years later, I have played it for a decent amount of time and realized that I was playing for the boobs, too! And for the shopping and the gift-wrapping and the friendship buying and the pool games...all of the game's excessive and addictive and ridiculous and sexually over-the-top qualities.

Maybe I played it for the same reasons that I watch the Housewives of Orange County and listen to Justin Timberlake. Maybe I played it because there's a shred of sad truth behind the depiction of women in this game. I mean, Girls Gone Wild exists because a guy wanted to make it, but also because the girls were more than happy to bare it all for the camera. Whatever the reason, I played this game last night for an hour and forty minutes straight when I didn't want to play Flower for longer than 45 minutes at a time. Unlike God of War where each ten minutes felt like ten days, this game flew by. When I decided to stop playing DoA, it was only because it was nearly 1am and because I was tired of losing at volleyball. Playing this game and enjoying it came at a price. I hated myself in the morning. I felt cheap, like I had had a one night stand with a slutty girl. Worse than that, if the slutty girl happened to be “turned on” in my living room someday I'd probably play her again. What had I become? What was wrong with me?

I think I need to do some deep psychoanalysis to try and figure out the answers to these questions. I will silently psychoanalyze as I describe some details about the game and how it's played. First off, the intro says everything you need to know about what the game is superficially about. It's about soft-porn set to sugary pop music. It's camera angles down girl's bikini tops or up girl's tiny skirts. It's girls striking sexy poses in the sand and writhing around on lounge chairs by the pool. It's two girls sharing one ice cream cone. Besides that, the game is sort of like soft-core porn meets The Sims meets WarioWare. OK, that might not really be an accurate description - I don't know much about soft core porn, The Sims or Wario Ware...but you get the idea. You spend about a third of the time on each aspect of the game - the sexies, the character customizing, and the mini games.

First, you pick a girl out of the eight international stereotypes available to you. I chose Kokoro, the Japanese stereotype, because she plays the piano and likes the color orange (unlike one of the girls who liked “milky pink.” Gross. No one could ever like that color). Then Kokoro and I were paired up with Lisa, her new best friend. Lisa shows you around the island the first day. After that, each day is pretty similar to the next and you can fill it with whatever activities you'd like. For example, when you wake up in the morning you can choose to relax by the pool or go shopping in one of the many shops where you can purchase items for yourself or for your friends. The rest of the time you can enjoy a number of sporting activities, namely volleyball matches (which, I assume is supposed to be the main thrust of the game, although I did not play the friendship politics well and ended up with no friends for a long segment of my two and a half hours of game play, so I didn't end up playing much volleyball). You can see a video of Kokoro and her friend, Tina, playing below. Make sure to sit through until the end. It's worth it to see the crazy undulating water balloon boob action Kokoro mentioned in her diary entry.

The other games didn't rely on having a best friend, so that worked in my favor, although I played all the mini games so badly that this also grew tiresome. I was especially terrible at the jetski racing. Ben watched me play and said he was going to make me play a game called Wave Race at some point but that he didn't think that was a good idea after what he had just seen. Even Kokoro knew she sucked. She hunched over on her jetski, shook her head, and said, “I'm no good at this.” I knew how she felt.

I was only marginally better at the pool hopping game. I was able to make it two thirds of the way across the pool once. The pool-hopping mini-game consists of multiple colored floating blocks that form a bridge across the pool. You have to push the corresponding colored button at just the right time so your girl can hop across the blocks to the other end of the pool. I had to pay a little extra for the best mini-game. When I saw the ticket for sale at the Zack of All Trades I couldn't resist. It was a ticket to the Butt Battle. After I had purchased my ticket (for a whopping 150,000 Zack dollars!) the game said, “You can now enjoy butt battle.” I enjoyed the game saying that to me even more than I enjoyed the butt battle itself. The game was not disappointing, but my actual butt-battling skills were. You can see a butt battle for yourself here as Kokoro battles Kasumi.

I spent the rest of my evening in the casino playing Roulette, Poker, Slot Machines, and Blackjack (the best one). I also enjoyed picking out and receiving gifts from Zack each night. Speaking of gift giving, it took a lot of gift giving to get anyone to like me. I made a mistake of dumping my ultra-slutty initial friend, Lisa, in favor of a cool Russian or German chick named Helena. Then I accidentally re-gifted one of Zack's gifts to her and she sent it back to me! The next day I woke up and Helena had left the island! After that it was like I was a leper. All the girls blackballed me. No matter how many gifts I gave these girls they wouldn't be my friend. I courted Christie for awhile simply because I'd already sent her a bunch of gifts and didn't want the expense to go to waste, but she was a ferocious bitch and I had to quit trying. I took an instant liking to the southern girl, Tina, because she liked iced coffee and had a cute southern accent. I overlooked her American flag bathing suit and questionable helmet hair cut. First I tried to give her an iced coffee, but I didn't see her until the evening and by then my iced coffee was warm! It was tragic. After that I made sure to give her all the things she liked as promptly as possible. An RC car. A yellow airplane toy. An orange watering can. Finally, on the fourth day I presented her with a perfect box wrapped in blue (her favorite color) and tied with matching blue ribbon for which I paid many Zack dollars. Inside the box was some fried chicken and apparently it was tasty because after that, she said she would be my friend! I finally had myself a volleyball teammate. Although we never actually won a single volleyball match, the controls were intuitive and I managed to hit the ball many more times than I expected to. And Tina ended up being a pretty good volleyball player!

While playing this game, the craziest thing happened. Kokoro and I began to meld! I suck at playing video games so she sucked at racing her jet ski. I was indecisive and wishy-washy choosing friends which kept Kokoro from having a volleyball teammate. I was too cheap to buy lots of gifts from the outset, so Kokoro didn't have any friends for two hours of the game. I was afraid to play the pool games so she started gambling all night! Kokoro was suffering for my shortcomings! Watching her sad situation unfold reminded me of high school and a particular pool party I once attended. It was my birthday and I had a new pink plaid bathing suit, one of those with the triangle-shaped bikini cups and matching boy short bottoms that were trendy back then. Just a few months ago I saw a picture of me in this bathing suit at this pool party and felt sorry for my then-self wondering whatever possessed me to wear that suit in public. Like the girls in this game, I didn't quite fit in my bathing suit. Sadly, the effect of my too-small suit was not as flattering for me as it is for them.

I remembered playing volleyball at the high school party, too. In this case, the effect was exactly the same as it was for Kokoro in the game. I missed just about every shot until my team lost. Then I remembered that while at this party I was mostly trying to impress and get the attention of one particular guy I'd loved forever. Like his video game equivalent, Zack, he gave me a great birthday gift, a thoughtful gift, nicely wrapped. But what I secretly knew, like Kokoro must have known, is that he would have done the same for the other girls at the party had it been their birthday. Zack gave Kokoro a present every night before bed, but you know he gives all the girls presents every night. What I really wanted from that guy at the party was his undivided attention and affection and he couldn't give that to me. And finally, the one thing that saved me from my bad bathing suit, my disappointing volleyball game, and my lack of boyfriend was my best friend. In the game it was Tina, in real life it was Sara. Just like in the game, I needed a best friend to get through the pettiness, the drama, the sporting events, and the bad clothing choices of my high school days. When I was alone, I was in trouble. With her, I could laugh my way through those awkward, depressing, disappointing high school moments.

So after that trip-down-memory lane psychoanalysis I can conclude that this game is strangely about more than soft-core porn. It's about friendship and loyalty. It's about having fun and feeling sexy. It's about being stupid and ridiculous and funny and silly. It's about giving a girl a cabbage in the hopes that she'll be your friend and then her replying by saying, “no thanks, I'm busy right now” while doing a strange Egyptian-style strip tease in a thong. How can you hate that? It happens to be about boobs, which is weird and maybe unfortunate, but actually adds to the zany, excessive vapidity of this game. By the end of my two hours I wanted to go buy a new bathing suit and listen to girly pop music. I wanted to lay by the pool like Kokoro and pretend that when I apply suntan lotion (because “a geisha must protect her skin.”) red and pink hearts will emanate from my flawless skin, too.

Two nights ago I played this game with my husband of five years. I don't know if he secretly likes to see the girl's boobs bounce or if he thinks the sex stuff is ridiculous or maybe both, but it doesn't matter because we had so much fun laughing at this stupid game for two hours straight when we both should have been sleeping that I realized something. Even though I'll never look like these girls in a bathing suit and even though I stink at playing sports, I'm the only girl that gets presents from Ben. I'm the girl he picked out of all the other girls in the world and that's the gift I'd always wanted. Boys playing this game in front of your girlfriends or wives, listen up:

Every girl has a little bit of DoA:Xtreme 2 inside them, whether we like to admit it or not. We want to feel sexy and desirable. We want to have so much confidence that we can dance on the beach in a bathing suit. We want to win the games at the pool and look hot playing volleyball instead of awkward. We want to be easy to befriend and daring enough to hop on a jetski or to butt battle...well, maybe not butt battle...but you get the point. We girls might not all look like Kokoro, but just know there's a Kokoro inside each one of us. If you can manage to make a girl feel like Kokoro and make sure she knows you wouldn't secretly eye up Tina or Lisa or Christie on the beach when she's not looking, you'll get the girl. And to all you Kokoros out there, make sure you've got Tina nearby to pick you up when Zack gets you an RC car instead of the iced coffee you were hoping for.

OK, it's time to get out of the pool and head to the arcade where my sun-starved husband has no doubt been hiding while I've been lounging on a raft getting skin cancer. For my next gaming assignment I'm going back to school: a little video game history lesson in the form of Retro Game Challenge for the Nintendo DS. I'll be playing revamped video game classics....games I'm sure to play poorly, but have been told I must play for at least five hours.

I will face this Retro Game Challenge with Kokoro's confidence and pride. I will sign off with the phrase Kokoro repeats to herself every night before bed. “Good job today, Kokoro!”

Good job today, Jess.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 for XBox 360: First Impressions review written in the form of my character's diary entry from her 1st day on Zack Island

Gamer Wife Project: Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2

Dear Diary,

OMG!! My first day on Zack Island was crazy!!!!! I have a new BFF!!! I don't remember her name, but she is totally amazing. She showed me all over the island today and we went shopping for, like, hours. She's really nice to me AND she's not as pretty as me. Plus, my boobs are way bigger so I think this friendship could really work out. She showed me the accessory shop where I could have purchased an “adorable hat” for 300,000 yen, but I decided to get myself some orange sunglasses since my favorite color is orange!!!! I even got my sunglasses gift wrapped in orange paper and ribbon so it's totally like a gift to myself!! I love this island!!!!Then we went to buy new bathing suits and I ALMOST got this awesome bikini where each side of the bikini top had a handprint on it like someone had just grabbed my boobs. How funny is that?!? But I decided to get a green one with little boy shorts since I'm not a hoebag like the other bitches here. We looked at stuff at this weird store called Zack of All Trades. I could have bought this thing called an Xbox 360, a tea set, or a cabbage? WTF?!? And I was like, omg, get me out of here! This place is gross! And my friend said we should go race our jet skis and I was like, yeah! But then when I got on the jet ski I was like, whoa, I have to drive it myself?!? I don't know if I can drive one of those things! And my friend said, just do it, here's how to drive it and then she showed me this chart for like 2 seconds and then took it away and I was like, hey wait, I didn't get a chance to read it yet, but it was too late. I was already on the jet ski. I was so mad that I tried to run my friend off the track. Then I tried to follow the arrows and go around the race track the way she was, but I just kept swerving all over the place and it was totally embarrassing so I said, eff this I'm going to the beach where I can lay in the sand in my hot bathing suit! I tried to get my jet ski stuck in the sand, but I was disqualified first. WHATEVER!

After the race I wanted to go swimming, but they had another race in mind. Lame! It was a race where we had to hop across the pool on colored blocks and I said, no way! My boobs will totally fall out of my top if I jump and the other girls said, even better! So I tried to jump across the pool on the blocks, but I only made it onto one and then I fell in the pool!!1!!!

Then they made me play volleyball and I was like, enough with the sports puh-leaze! But they said, come on Kokoro. Just play with us. So me and my friend were on one team against this girl with white hair named Christie and her purple-haired sidekick I forgot her name. They were so nasty. Their boobs were gyrating in circles and it was so weird. I've never seen boobs do that before. I think it distracted me from playing volleyball well because I kept missing the ball and my friend got so mad at me. She told me to get it together and I was like, WHATEVER! Have you seen this girl's boobs? And she was like, mine do that, too. Don't yours? And I said no, but then I looked down and my boobs were doing it, too!!! There must be something strange about Zack Island that makes boobs gyrate in perfect undulating circles!!! So we lost. BUT after that I got to tour a bunch of hotels and that was fun. I picked out the Seabreeze hotel because I can watch the fish swim through the glass floor IN MY ROOM!!! Then I lost a ton of money gambling in the casino. But it's ok because I have a ton of money!! Woohooooo!!!

That's all for today, diary. I'm worn out from all that shopping and those stupid races and stuff. Plus I'm exhausted from anger. I tried to get my orange sunglasses so I could wear them and they made me give them away because I gift wrapped them!!! WHATEVER!! So I gave them to that bitchy girl Christie because I thought maybe I could buy her friendship.

I hope I meet some boys tomorrow. I don't understand. It seems like there are only girls with really big boobs here. I wonder who that Zack guy is and how long I'm going to stay on his island because I don't know just how many volleyball matches I can take. At least I can go shopping and every store plays music from the soundtrack of that Sweet Sixteen show on MTV. That's so AWESOME!!! Ok, more tomorrow. Byeeeee!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Flower for PS3: A Review

Push and hold any button. A flower appears, golden and glowing. A single petal blows away from its bulb and sweeps me off on a journey. A gorgeous, treacherous, illuminating journey.

I had a banyan tree in my front yard as a kid. We grew up together, that tree and me. Today, when I visit my childhood home, the tree is different. It is wider and fuller and taller, and maybe even wiser. I used to sit in one of its perfect natural nests and think about what the tree has seen in its many years and what it will see when I'm long gone. Trees hold a fascination for me because of their age, their steadfastness. Nothing is sadder than a stump. Unlike trees, flowers aren't known for longevity. Fittingly, the game developers, no, I should probably say, the artists who created this game used flowers to represent the natural world's fragility and vulnerability to mankind's destruction.

But I'm getting ahead of myself, which I will probably do a lot this post because, for some reason, I thought this game was much smaller than it turned out to be which is why I planned to only write one post about this game. Now I find myself with much too much to talk about and no real coherent way to organize it all. I guess those many fragments of thoughts floating about in my head reflects the game itself – the many petals loosely strewn together, flitting through space on the breeze, searching for meaning, for organization, for life, for survival, for perfection. This review may have to be like the branching of the banyan, like those lilting, wayward flower petals.


The game starts in an apartment room. All you can see is a table in front of a window. Out the window you can see the dreary, anonymous city which I didn't immediately recognize as Japanese, but which takes on a more and more distinctive Japanese flavor as the game progresses. A drooping flower in a pot sits on the table and you select it. Direction is determined by the tilt of the controller. Otherwise, the only other control is to hold any button down for forward motion.I sigh with relief after God of War's button-mashing. Very simple. The opening text tells you to relax and enjoy which I was definitely looking forward to after my God of War terror-fest.

Ben has given me three very different games so far, not just in content or difficulty, but in their very purpose. Afterburner Climax is a video game that plays like a toy: you have a goal, you obtain a skill, and you better that skill over time to attain your goal, much like mastering a yo-yo trick or like learning to play a mean game of tennis. God of War III felt like an interactive movie, like a form of entertainment meant to immerse and involve you in a story. Flower feels like art. Ben knows that, for me, art is almost like religion. I am pretty sure Ben's hope with this game was to say, “Look here! Video games can be Art , too!" He probably thought the pretty flowers that light up like fireworks couldn't hurt, either.


And he was right. The illuminated flowers did not disappoint. This game captures the sensual qualities of flowers, including sound and touch.(if smellovision existed, I'm positive they would have used that, too!) Technicolor flower petals sway, glide, and shimmer in the wind and the sunshine, qualities of motion and light vividly captured. The closest comparison I can make to playing this game is riding Soarin' at EPCOT in Orlando, Florida. On the ride, you sit in chairs suspended from above. The chairs lift into the air, your feet allowed to dangle. In front of you is a screen so big you can't see anything beyond it in your periphery. From your faux-paragliding viewpoint you “soar” over iconic California scenes of mountain peaks, sandy beaches, city skyscrapers, and orange groves (I take it back, smellovision DOES exist....Mickey Mouse pipes in the smell of oranges as you pass over the groves). It is my favorite ride at any theme park. The soaring feeling, the beautiful scenery, and the powerful yet peaceful music...I could ride all day! While playing this game I kept thinking of that ride and realized I'd rather soar over the scenery in Flower. I wanted to be one of the colorful, swirling flower petals gathering a rainbow-like stream of petals behind me. As I played, I could almost feel the wind blow and imagine the sweep of the grass across my feet.


Then there's the sound. If you can imagine what a flower sounds like the moment it blooms, that is what the game sounds like. I would recommend that everyone experience the game if, for nothing else, than to look at and listen to it. There is an entire musical side of this game that I haven't even talked about yet. Every time your petals pass over a flower, it blooms and makes a musical sound: a tinkling chime, a percussive clink, a round earthy stringed pluck. As you play, you take part in a composition – a musical conversation between the game's score and your own percussion solo.

But Flower wasn't all roses and sunshine. It was easy to poo-poo God of War – an excessive, macho-machine of a game probably made mostly to make more money for the God of War franchise. It is harder to criticize this pretty little game. I will have to, however, as this was not completely the idyllic experience I'd hoped for. To Ben's dismay, I couldn't get the hang of the controller tilting. At times I felt like I was on a Nascar track rather than in a lovely rolling meadow. Around level six I'd had quite enough of the controller tilting, back-pedaling, swerving, diving, and disoriented petal swooping. This is one of those cases where I hate to criticize the game's controls when the problem probably lies more with the "controller" herself. Still, the game play annoyed me. I found it really difficult to navigate and control my speed. I would go too fast and miss the flowers and have to double back. Then I'd try to go slow and my petal moved at a snail's pace.

Then there was the problem of getting lost. I knew from God of War to follow blinking lights and pay attention to camera movements, but sometimes I would forget to pay attention, then get stuck flying around in circles looking for any clue that could tell me what to do next. The game doesn't let you save or go back within a level. Like I said, around level six I lost my patience. The flowers, struggling to survive in the shadows of steel girders and towers, became even more difficult to find among the dimly lit pipes that snaked like streams through a jagged, rocky, post-apocalyptic, electrified wasteland. I found myself so completely disoriented and without a glowing light or flower in sight that I found myself saying the F word a lot and that F did not stand for “flowers.” Because of Level Six, a game that took Ben an hour and a half to beat took me about four hours.

My frustration with this game was worse than Ben thought possible. Why had the game made me so frustrated? I think it's because I took the game's opening words seriously. I really had hoped to relax and enjoy it. I didn't want to have any trouble playing it. The game was so pretty to look at and listen to that I didn't want to find and fly over a million flowers and I certainly didn't want to become completely lost, confused, and hopeless. Then I thought about it. When did I get angry and lost and frustrated? When the flowers were all but destroyed and the world, too, had become dark and desolate and hopeless and lost. The medium reflected the message and that's what makes this game more than a toy, more than just entertainment. That's what makes this video game art.


The only other critique I have about the game relate to the game's length. Each level is just too long. I would be just as, if not more satisfied with my experience if it had been half as long. I wanted to keep going because I knew there would be a payoff in the end, but the constant flower-finding wore on me. In some ways I'd probably just prefer if Ben played it while I watched.

I do appreciate that it is a game, though. I wouldn't want it to just be an animated film. I think that the fact that someone plays this game as the flower is powerful and adds layers of meaning to this piece that are interesting. Not only is this piece a work of art in its beauty, its simplicity of design, and its message, but by functioning as a game it becomes like a work of performance art. I could imagine sitting down to experience this piece in a museum. Ben says he wants a video game to make him cry someday. I think when he said that he meant that he wants to see a video game with a story so well written and a game so well done that he is moved to tears. This game isn't quite that, but it is certainly moving and I feel bettered for having seen and played it -not so much because of the heavy-handed environmental message, but because of the game's ending.

At the end of this game those hundreds of delicate, fragile petals come together to form one giant blossoming tree, strong and resilient like my childhood banyan. Nature and man learn to coexist. The world takes on its color again. Even the credits reflect this idea, while adding another layer of meaning. In the credits, the player collects flowers labeled with the names and titles and special thanks symbolizing the coming together of individual talents to make something strong and long-lasting and beautiful. Play through the credits. It's worth it.

Okay. Enough of this artsy-fartsy stuff. Time for some boobs! At least that's Ben's opinion since my next game assignment is to play two hours of Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball for the Xbox360, a game I have always not-so-affectionately referred to as "The Boobie-Boob Game." I guess that's what I get for complaining in any way about Flower. But I will be strong and resilient like that pink blossomed tree. I will bounce from game to game with gusto - like a volleyball bounces over a net, like large and perky animated breasts bounce in a skimpy bikini top!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

God of War III for PS3: Final Review

Trial by fire - by which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task

God of War III for the PS3 was my trial by fire, quickly determining my guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt. I've been found guilty of hating most things about video games and I'm guilty of being terrible at playing them. Ben, otherwise known as judge and jury in this trial, knew that I needed to face this game. He wanted me to encounter everything I fear and despise about video games head-on in the hopes that I'd learn a lot in the process. The good news in this trial is that I bravely faced my fear and loathing for 2 whole hours, 49 minutes and 22 long seconds and learned some important lessons about video games along the way... Bad news is, I never want to play this game ever, ever again.

In this final review of God of War III, I will enumerate the qualities I hate about video games and how this game made me face them. Then I will respond to each hated quality with a lesson learned because I faced them.

I hate to be scared. Ben doesn't think this game is scary, but it is. I actually threw the controller at him once and forced him to fight a horrifying snake woman. I played those nearly three hours in an almost constant panicked state. My shoulders probably felt like the tree-mountain-titan's shoulders looked – hard as stone. My fingers cramped they were so tense. I don't think I blinked once during game play. After each gaming session I felt like I'd just gotten off a treadmill, not a couch. I faced swarming zombie skeletons, dark fiery caves with giant lurking monsters, wavy arms that rose out of the rocky cave-bottom and tried to kill me. Everything I encountered was dark, angry, and murderous set to a soundtrack of timpani rolls and blaring brass. The scenery was unpleasant to look at and my character was an ugly dude. If I'm going to look at something for long periods of time, I'd prefer them to be a little more attractive. This game gives you no relief from doom and gloom, danger and violence - at least not in the first three hours.

Lesson Learned: I learned in College Fiction class to give the writer the benefit of the doubt. Assume he or she knew what they were doing and that everything in the story was there for a reason. Each comma placement, every word carefully chosen. Applying the same principal to video games, the God of War developers certainly successfully set a mood and created a world that creeped me out and made me feel like I really was in a long and seemingly endless battle. Congratulations, guys. I may not like that kind of "story," but you did make me feel something and that's more than I can say for other video games I've played.

I also learned that the hordes of enemies may look scary, but really aren't that bad. They may have scared me in their sudden and unexpected appearance, but they almost always surprised me in their quick and relatively painless deaths. I learned that if I just stay calm and keep hurling my whip at them,they'll all die eventually.

I hate fighting and killing games. Killing things gets boring. The mechanics of the fights seem tedious to me. I don't care how many times you change up what type of gross beast I have to fight next, I'm still just repeatedly pushing square and that just seems like a waste of my time.

Lesson Learned: I may still think fighting and killing in video games is tedious, but I don't think it's as difficult as I did before. This game made mekill lots of different things in lots of different ways. The game told me exactly what buttons I had to push to use certain weapons. Plus, I learned all about Quick Timer Events thanks to the fighting in this game. A quick timer event is a game mechanic where the player pushes certain buttons in a particular order to make a video show up. You have control of the game in that you have to push the buttons when the game tells you to, but you don't really have control of your character anymore once you've pushed the button correctly. In this game, quick timer events were used to kill big boss creatures. I would have to hit the bad guy many times with my whips or swords until a flaming circle appeared. I'd push the circle button and then Kratos would jump on the creature's back and cut off one of it's heads and then a flaming triangle would appear. I'd hit the triangle button and Kratos would stab the creature in the back and so on until the creature was dead. This gameplay mechanic allows for impressive fight scenes without me actually having to do the impressive fighting which, I suppose, is preferable although having to hit the buttons seemed stupid. Just show me a video of Kratos killing the thing if that's what you want to do. I don't need to push buttons to stay engaged. Which reminds me...

I hate when games make you do things just so you have something to do. This game was really guilty of that. I remember having a long conversation with Ben about my ideal video game. My idea was a Chipmunk Adventure-esque hot air balloon travel game in which the character would have to find important cultural icons on a global scavenger hunt. Ben's response was, “sure, but what's the game?” And I replied, “oh yeah.” I hate games that should really just be movies. God of War III would make a fine movie. It has a story I could probably get into if the game would just be a little more forthcoming with the plot. The character could be interesting if I could find some reason to care about him. The places and gods could be cool to see if they weren't so ugly. But no. The story is told really slowly and with cheesy, clunky dialogue. In the meantime you have to mash the circle button to make Kratos open a door, hold R1 a million times to open a million treasure chests, solve nearly impossible, convoluted puzzles for the sheer ability to proceed to yet another puzzle. I am fine with solving a puzzle, shooting a bow and arrow, moving a cart filled with rocks, flying to faraway platforms, and climbing never-ending tangled vines to unseen destinations if, in the end, it seemed like there was a reason for doing any of those things. In this game, and many games that I dislike, it seems like you just have to do stuff so that the game can function as a game instead of as a movie.

Lesson learned: By having to complete all these useless tasks I learned how to complete these useless tasks! I figure Ben has games planned for me in the future that will require me to be able to climb, run, push, fight, fly, jump, and solve puzzles. This one game contains just about every game mechanic possible and it makes you do each one a LOT. I got pretty good at double jumping up to a higher rock or navigating my way over tangled vines or along narrow ledges. I know it was hard for Ben to watch me learn. At one point he said, "oh my god, just go right." I was TRYING to go right! Kratos just wasn't going where I was telling him to go!

Not only did I practice making Kratos do what he needed to do, I started to understand how to get around in a 3D environment by following the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle motion) of the camera as it pans. I learned to look for out-of-place items in an environment because those would often tell me what I should do next. I learned to smash boxes to gain information or obtain magic or experience or strength. I started to find and follow what Ben refers to as “visual clues.” I learned that part of what makes me hate video games is that I don't know their secret language – the little things that gamers have learned to notice and respond to.

Gamer Wife Project: God of War III

I hate not knowing where to go or what to do next and I like to have clear goals and definitive ending points.

Lesson learned: This game hit on both of those things in interesting ways. First of all, you never really know where you're going in this game or why. There are no maps showing you where you are. No stage maps to tell you what level you're on and what level you're trying to get to. Kratos is on a mission to overthrow the Gods of Olympus to free the people from the God's oppressive rule. That's about all you know, it seems. You just keep going and find new gods to fight and new places to fight in along the way which forced me to play longer because I was eager to discover where I was going to go next(and eager to get to a save point!) And although there was no map to tell you where to go, the game wouldn't let me stray far from Kratos' intended destination which made this game a good transition into other more exploratory 3D action-adventure games to come. I really have a hard time when a game is open-ended and I have the freedom to go anywhere I want. I get lost easily and have a bad sense of direction. I tend to wander aimlessly, getting more and more frustrated the more and more lost I become. I was relieved that this game wouldn't let me go where I shouldn't go. I usually had a path to follow. As long as I followed the blinky lights, I could generally tell where I should be even if I couldn't tell why I should be there.

I hate solving puzzles. I really do.I don't like to admit that I hate solving puzzles because not liking them makes me feel unintelligent and unintellectual. It seems like the smart, nerdy people I tend to love and befriend all like to solve puzzles. They think solving puzzles is a fun way to challenge themselves. To me, though, puzzles are torture devices meant to make me feel like an idiot. I'd rather avoid them. This game was full of them.

Lesson learned: God of War III forces you to figure out puzzles or you simply can't keep going. Since I had to progress in order to write about this game I had to solve at least a couple of these puzzles, though I had to have Ben's help with many of them. Even he admitted that the puzzles in this game were annoying. The puzzles went something like this: you figure out that you must free someone stuck behind a bunch of brambles. Then you run around the area for awhile, often jumping or vine-climbing looking for any sort of clues, usually in the form of blinking lights. The picture below is a good example. The R1 on the screen tells me that box has something in it I need. There's a wheel in the picture that I know I have to use in some way, probably to raise or lower a door somewhere else. The blinky light there alerted me to the wheel's presence. That cart with the rocks in it came from another room. I have to figure out where I need to push the cart so that I can use it, but I haven't figure out where that is yet. Luckily, that fire next to me is a save point (hurray!) so I can come right back here at another time since I am tired of trying to solve this puzzle now. Solving these puzzles takes a long time and, like I said before, there doesn't seem to be much of a reason for solving the puzzles other than to get me to the next annoying puzzle in this dark and dreary underworld. The lesson learned here, I guess, is that I can force myself to figure them out eventually, although I will still hate every minute of it. There is, I suppose, a modicum of satisfaction gained by solving them, even if I still wish the reward for my efforts was more than the ability to keep walking through Hades.

Gamer Wife Project: God of War III

I hate when I require Ben's help to accomplish something. That goes for moving heavy furniture, fixing a broken toilet, or deciding which outfit to wear. It's not that I don't think of Ben as my partner, as someone there to help me through life's trials, big or small. It's just that I want to know that I can do things for myself. I want to be prepared for whatever life throws at me. In this case, life threw impossible-to-solve-puzzles and a snake monster at me and that was more than I could take. If I were to ever play this game again, I would have to have Ben by my side. And I suppose that's a good lesson learned, too. Some trials are just too difficult to face alone. I'm lucky to have an able-bodied and able-minded partner to turn to when I'm scared or in trouble, whether it's a clogged toilet I have to fight or a swarm of zombie skeletons.

Although I don't see myself playing this game again, at least not without Ben, I am glad he made me play it. I feel like a barrier has been lifted. I feel able to move on to just about any game with a little less fear and a little more controller practice. I think Ben feels bad for putting me through this difficult trial. The next game seems like the complete opposite of God of War III and I can't say I'm sorry about that. I could stand to play something relaxing and beautiful for a few days to make up for Kratos' ugly scar-face and his band of hideous titan friends.

God of War III, can I have a timpani roll please?

Game assignment number three: Flower on the PS3 (mission is to beat the game). If I can beat a spider-horse water monster, I'm pretty sure I can beat a game called Flower. I guess we'll see.