Saturday, April 2, 2016

♫The Waiting is the Hardest Part♫


This is a picture of a toy standing on an arcade game. No, it's really nothing special--not really.

Or is it?

When I was a kid, this would have been an absolute dream--Heaven, Nirvana, Voodoo Heaven...whatever. I would have been the absolute happiest kid on the planet. Why, you ask? I mean, these two things are pretty mundane, right? Yes, they are--now.

Let's start with the big one: Video games. I loved them. Hell, I still do! I was a gamer geek before "gamer geek" was even a valid moniker. I would spend hours in arcades, thriftily making a couple of dollars worth of quarters last by watching other people play various cabinets. Sometimes, I would get lucky and find that someone had forgotten just how many credits they had, resulting in a free game!

At home, I had only an Atari 2600 for the longest time. Sure, the Colecovision came along eventually and it recreated actual arcade games much more faithfully than any other system. Later, the Nintendo and Super Nintendo would follow, truly providing the experience I craved. But, wait, the consoles all cost quite a bit of money, as did the games. I remember the Atari 2600 cost $200 for quite a while. I was a kid and that kind of money was not available, so I was forced to be patient and wait it out.

And then there is the toy. Some of you geeks out there might recognize it as Miriya Sterling's veritech from the Americanized anime Robotech (or from the original Macross, or whatever).

At one point during my childhood, I got absolutely hooked on Robotech. I would get off at a bus stop that was further away from my home but was sooner in the route so that I could run home in time to catch it. Couldn't I just record it? We didn't have a VCR--they were relatively expensive. This was the only way I could watch it.

So here's the surprise--this was all pretty awesome. These were two things I relished so, when I got to experience them, it was the best thing in the world. I couldn't just play any video game I wanted at any time I wanted, and I had to make sure to watch Robotech when I could. I didn't know any different, so I enjoyed these activities when I could.

Fast forward to today or, well, just the present era.

I built the arcade cabinet years ago. I learned quite a bit about carpentry and wiring in the process and the experience itself was absolutely amazing. Since then, I have been able to play any classic video game (up to about 1999) any time I want, as many times as I want. If I'd had this as a kid I WOULD HAVE ABSOLUTELY FLIPPED OUT! This was my dream machine when I was 10. Ten-year-old me would have done anything to get my hands on this. Inside, it's a modest Windows XP, single core PC running everything behind the scenes.

Older me plays it occasionally, gets nostalgic, and realizes how terrible I am at all of the games. I can play Gauntlet forever without worrying about the quarters in my pocket which, by the way, actually takes some fun out of the game. It's less fun when you don't care how many times you die. But, anyway...

The toy is another symbol. The moment I saw Robotech I wanted a toy veritech, transformable plane. Guess what. THEY DIDN'T EXIST! Overseas, yes. Here? No. Internet? That wouldn't come along for years...YEARS! I saved up my money and bought a couple of simplified, cheap knock-offs but they weren't what I wanted.

Eventually, I got my hands on Jetfire, a character in the Transformers cartoon that is pretty much an exact replica of a veritech fighter, and that satisfied me for a very long time. Finally, older me found that Robotech had its own toy line online and they were clearing out a bunch of them (regular price was pretty damned expensive, even for older me). That is when I acquired this one--I wanted Roy Fokker/Rick Hunter's Skull 1 but it wasn't half price, so I got Miriya's, and it's awesome. If the house was on fire, I'd probably brave the flames to save it.

So what's my point? It's a much different world. Most people who want something can click a few buttons and their something arrives in two days. Many of these somethings find their way to a pile of other somethings where they collect dust. Want a song? Buy it online--you don't even have to buy the whole album on tape cassette to get that one song. And you get it INSTANTLY!

It's pretty amazing, really. This is all something that 10-year-old me would simply have killed for. I still most likely wouldn't have had the money for everything I wanted, but opportunities would be there.

This is what our children experience. They can carry their entire music library with them in a device that is 1/6th the size of anything we used. There is no wait, no anticipation, and no real respect for the terribly long two days it will take to get the item that they had mom or dad order for them. They don't need to look up information in an encyclopedia and don't need to be driven to the library for a book report.

Honestly, it's pretty amazing. In no way do I hold this against them and give them (genuine) grief, saying "well, when I was a kid...". It's a completely different world for them, with new challenges and hardships. I describe mine to them and they look at me like I have cats crawling out of my ears.

But I still remember the feeling when I opened the collector's edition veritech and admired it, many many years after I first desperately wanted one. It's a thing...an item, and maybe it's "materialistic". But, to me, it essentially represents the fulfillment of a dream.

Yes, I am a complete and total geek. :)

Monday, February 22, 2016

Of Storytelling in Video Games

When I was a kid, video games were pretty simple.

"You're this tank...and you want to destroy that other tank--over there. That guy."
Why do I hate this other tank so much?
"Uhhh...ummm...that other tank stole your cheese?"
DIE, TANK!

Video games didn't have voice actors, music, more than 10 pixels or...most importantly, a plot. As I grew up and video games evolved, these qualities slowly crept into the mix, making them more compelling...well, to an extent.

"So, the princess has been captured. Go kill stuff and SAVE HER!"
And, eventually...

"These aliens hate you and want to destroy you. Defend your planet!"
But, why do they hate us so much?
"Uhhh...ummm...your race stole their cheese!"

Thankfully, these subpar plotlines have given way to much more robust, serious, or even wacky, epic stories that span entire franchises and even multiple media types. Some of these games become legends among gamers, exhibiting top-notch writing, production values, and gameplay.

And, then, there's Halo 5. Yeah, it's been out for a while and I've taken a few months to sit on it and stew--mostly to avoid having the entire discussion be me ranting and saying over and over "Screw Halo 5! Screw Halo 5!"

First of all, let me get this out of the way. The gameplay is pretty fun. The action feels very "run-and-gun", blow through enemies and destroy stuff like the great god of destruction that you are. Multiplayer is a mixed bag. 343i changed up the multiplayer to add optional microtransactions and new game types while pretty much discarding all of the old tried-and-true game types. It's different and, often, I pine for the game types of old. But that's not what this is all about.

This game was very seriously marketed wrong. Every element that was introduced in the commercials--rivalries between characters, a hunt for the iconic Master Chief, and whatever crimes the Chief committed--discard all of that. I mean, literally, dump it in the trash. It has really very little to do with the game itself.

So what does the game's plot entail? Well, the story feels like it was written by a third-grader who, halfway through, got distracted by a pack of squirrels outside, then said third-grader wandered into traffic and his faithful dog finished the story. It's a disaster. It meanders through uninspiring locales and, ultimately, ends up having advanced to virtually nowhere. It's like working your butt off for a day but not accomplishing anything. You're tired, you're dirty, and you've nothing to show for it.

The game does nothing to address any plot points left over from Halo 4, the books, or any of the movies. For a mere three chapters, you play as the beloved Master Chief. The rest of the time you have to endure playing as Spartan Locke, a "by-the-books goody two-shoes" who is half-assedly (it's a word now!) pursuing the Chief...sort of.

And, then, there are several chapters of the game where the entirety of gameplay is you, running around, talking with people. That's it. Just go to point A, talk to a dude, go over here, talk to another dude (or dudette), repeat, get a sandwich, jump off a cliff...whatever. It's as if 343i didn't have enough of a game so they threw this garbage in, hoping people would be fooled into thinking that it was awesome!

It's not. It's terrible. It's shoddy. It's half-hearted and uninspired. I seriously can't believe that this is what my beloved Bungie had in mind for the series when they handed it over to 343i. Maybe they didn't know where the franchise was going after Halo 3 and 343i had to make it all up by themselves. Either way, it's too bad.

The gameplay could be the best ever (and, while it's solid, it's not the best ever) and it would still fall flat.

Video games have transcended beyond the "infinite levels of a pixelated space ship blowing up pixelated aliens" type of game. I don't expect every game I play to be revolutionary or a huge breakthrough. I'm fine with many of them being right on par with others. Even if they're not the best ever, I can usually find something good about them. But Halo 5, with the huge expectations that were laid upon its shoulders, dropped the ball...then stomped on it, set it on fire, and kicked it into the neighbor's house

Which also caught on fire.