Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Call Me "Light."

By Kirk Hamilton

My Paste Magazine review of Final Fantasy XIII is up. I'm happy with how it came out, and think I managed to convey my mixed thoughts on the game. Special thanks to Jason Kills for being a great editor and cool dude.

I already expounded a bit on how I felt about the game's grinding, and remain interested to see if that sort of old-school stat leveling is ever really going to go by the wayside. If it does, then good riddance.

I do want to take the opportunity to write a bit more about FFXIII's characters, specifically the female ones. Rather than get involved in any further Vanille-bashing (or take part in prompting the inevitable "In Defense of Vanille" post that I'm sure someone'll write), I mainly wanted to say once more, for the record, how much I liked Lightning. Because I liked her a whole, whole lot.

Dark Side of the Moon Arranged for NES

By Annie Wright

Drop what you're doing and hit that there play button NOW (unless this will cause you to get fired, in which case you should probably wait until lunch).

Yes, this is the ENTIRE Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, arranged by Youtube user Sakanakao (AKA Brad Smith, who is a software engineer from Ontario and also apparently an 8-bit musical genius). No word yet on how long this project took, but given the way some of the finer nuances are captured here, I am guessing that it must have been fairly labor intensive. And no, Mario Paint was not used, though people are doing some fairly impressive things there, as well.

Playlist links and a full download are available here, as well as more details regarding Maestro Smith's process.

Brad, I hope you are prepared to accept responsibility for the en masse nerdgasm that you are about to cause.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Connoisseur and the Addict

By Dan Apczynski

Among the many things that caught my attention in Tom Bissell’s excellent recap-confessional, “Video Games: The Addiction,” I was surprised to find that what haunted me most was neither the cocaine abuse nor the revelation that Mr. Bissell made his way through Liberty City more than once (don’t get me wrong; cousin Niko and I had our share of good times, but one adventure was enough). It wasn’t even the fact that Bissell and I shared so much of our experiences in lockstep—skipping GTA III, for instance, and the need to cope with the queer alienation of uprooting ones life and moving to unfamiliar territory. Rather, it was this nugget from the top of the article that resonated most deeply:
Once upon a time I wrote in the morning, jogged in the late afternoon and spent most of my evenings reading. Once upon a time I wrote off as unproductive those days in which I had managed to put down "only" a thousand words.
Elegiac, vaguely regretful. I felt a familiar taste creeping around the edges. He continues:
These days I have read from start to finish exactly two works of fiction—excepting those I was also reviewing—in the last year . . . These days I still manage to write, but the times I am able to do so for more than three sustained hours have the temporal periodicity of comets with near-earth trajectories.
At this point, I’m no longer reading a story about Mr. Bissell; Mr. Bissell is reciting a story about me. The link is ultimately made between our inability to focus and our obsession with video games, but of course, it’s already clear where we’re both heading. [If you’re reading this Tom, no worries: I have the absolute fullest grasp on my sanity; use of first-person plural is for effect only.]

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Good Grind

By Kirk Hamilton

Over the last couple of weeks, I've played one metric buttload of Final Fantasy XIII (I'm reviewing it for Paste). My review is finished, and I will, of course, link to it when it's online. But I thought I'd take the opportunity to write a few more thoughts about the game's old-school grinding.

Though FFXIII has some stuff going for it, by far my biggest gripe is that it just doesn't provide the gameplay necessary to support its sixty-hour length. I mean my God, it feels endless. And not the good, Dragon Age sort of endless. It's a grind throughout, but it waits until the eleventh chapter (out of thirteen) to make you truly feel like you're grinding, with the return of that old-school rhythm of aimlessly wandering around killing enemies just to get your stats high enough to progress the story.

What's interesting is how starkly those grinding mechanics stand in contrast to (and pale in comparison with) the other JRPG I'm currently playing, Demon's Souls. (Though truthfully, Demon's Souls is more of a "Role-Playing Game from Japan" than a "JRPG." All of the swords are regular-sized and I don't feel like a pedophile every time I use my characters' special powers.)

Friday, March 26, 2010

I Put On My Robe and Gamertag

By Annie Wright

04h 14m 9s...
04h 14m 8s...
04h 14m 7s...

I'm watching the countdown, bright red against a black background. It's not quite close enough to zero to be completely mesmerizing yet, but given the intensity with which devoted fanboys have been known to queue up for big events, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's tuned in this early.

No, it's not a bomb. Or at least, not a physical explosive device. It could be a bomb in the figurative sense, and part of me hopes that it is. What I am looking at is the dwindling time left until GameCrush goes live.

GameCrush is a site which allows you to arrange a paid "playdate" with a member of the opposite sex. In other words, for $6.60 per game, you can play on XBox Live with a hot girl. There is rumored to be a Flash option as well (no pun intended), with additional plans to incorporate PSN for those who are not XBox-inclined. Unfortunately, the public beta was not able to launch as planned due to server traffic issues. Which means that I was definitely not the only one with an eye on the countdown.

God of War III in 100 Words or Less

By Kirk Hamilton

I'm cheating a bit here, since we all know how many words a picture is worth, but: See Above Picture.

Or, everything I said in this post, times four.

Superlatives abound - the jaw-dropping-est opening sixty minutes in gaming history followed by the most ridiculously violent mountainside vacation of all time. Gameplay is at times overly familiar, and feels a touch easier, too. Combo button-mapping is greatly improved, and the new long-distance grab-charge significantly speeds up the flow of combat.

If God of War II was John Bonham, God of War III is Brann Dailor.

Embrace the Leviathan.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interview: Steve Pardo of Harmonix

By Kirk Hamilton

When we look back at the Great Music-Game Wars of the late 2000's, everyone will remember where they stood. Was it with with Activision, owners of the "Guitar Hero" brand and creators of the party-friendly Guitar Hero 5? Or was it with Harmonix, pioneers of the full-band music game, creators of the original Guitar Hero, true lovers of music, friends of mankind, and servants of truth and justice?

Okay, I guess it was never really that tough of a decision. Hell, it's not even fair to compare a development studio to a publisher, but for whatever reason, that's the way the narrative went. Regardless of the amount of money Activision's franchise rakes in, there can be little doubt as to which side won the battle for the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide.

After creating Rock Band and its incredibly well-made sequel, as well as the niche-but-lavish The Beatles: Rock Band, Harmonix is pretty much batting 1.000. And with their incredibly deep, constantly updated online store filling out their games' libraries (current number of tunes available is nearing 1000), and the just-announced Rock Band Network making it possible for any band to get in on the action, things are looking pretty rosy for the future of the Boston-based developer.

Harmonix composer and sound-designer Steve Pardo and I went to music school together back at the University of Miami. We were both jazz saxophone majors, so we followed similar paths - we worked with the same professors, took the same classes, and played in many of the same groups. And, it turns out, followed similar paths after graduation as well. I moved to San Francisco and started to sing, play guitar, and write songs, and he moved to Boston and... started to sing, play guitar, and write songs.

When I found out he was working for Harmonix, I thought it was pretty cool - he sent me a note after an enthusiastic piece I'd written about the future of music games got sent around the Harmonix offices. After the Rock Band Network launched, I saw that his (super awesome) pop group Steve and Lindley Band had coded their own song "Backyard Buildyard" for the launch, and figured it was a good time to reach out and see if he'd be down to chat a bit.

He was, so over the next week we chatted via email about his role at Harmonix, the process of coding his own band's song for the RBN, and his favorite Rock Band instrument. I also tried to get him to elaborate on the cryptic statements that some folks have made about the future of the Rock Band franchise. (Spoiler alert: I failed.)

He is a groovy, super-talented dude, and I really appreciate him taking the time to chat. Our full interview is after the break.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Games and Education: Your Input Is Desired

Hi everyone, Kirk here. In addition to working in the lucrative field of professional videogame blogging, I am a jazz instructor at the very groovy Urban School of San Francisco. Urban is a progressive private school in the Haight Ashbury district, and to complement its nontraditional approaches to the classroom, the school rolls at the bleeding edge of technology. I've written about the school's laptop program on my own blog, but the short version is that Urban is a a nationally-renowned leader in the field, and the way that all that tech is seamlessly integrated into daily student life is essentially unprecedented.

This is my first year as a member of the Urban Digital Innovators Group (DIG), where some of the school's more tech-savvy teachers and students get together to freely brainstorm new techniques and technologies for the classroom. Teachers are setting up wikis, using motion-capture and video-capture technology, coming up with new ways to use smartboards, and doing all manner of other groovy stuff.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Game On

It's kind of hard to believe it's only been a month and a half since we took the wrapping off of Gamer Melodico. Annie recently made some word-clouds by plugging in the text from a few of our recent posts, and I thought I'd share one of them.

In the immortal words of Wayne Campbell: "Game on!"

(click to enlarge.)

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Interview: Mike Albanese of Audio Aggregate

By Kirk Hamilton

Music has the capacity to affect us more than perhaps any other single aspect of a game. As we work through level after level, we hear the game's themes over and over, and the grooves and melodies inextricably attach themselves to our experience of the game itself. The soundtracks of our favorite games hit our emotional cores as surely as the scent of an old lover or a childhood hideaway - when a longtime game-lover hears the theme from Mega Man, Metal Gear Solid, or Monkey Island, the floodgates of memory open, and things can get emotional.

The capacity for music to make games more emotionally engaging is certainly not lost on today's developers. Last week's GDC was overflowing with audio designers and composers, all of whom are dedicated to pushing game music to new levels. Several of the panels pulled back the curtain on the composition process, and in doing so, showcased the remarkable directions that today's game composers are heading.

Mike Albanese is no stranger to the world of game music. A longtime drummer and producer on the scene in Athens, GA, Mike's first entreƩ into the gaming music scene was as a founder of the band Bit Brigade. Perhaps best described as "Extreme Game-Rock," the Brigade takes the shredding chiptune anthems from the classics of the 8- and 16-bit era and performs them live as their "badass gamer" plays through the games on a giant screen in the background. They are quite a quite a sight to behold. No, seriously - check them out.

Mike's latest venture is the indie game-focused audio collective Audio Aggregate. Their roster currently stands at eight members, with music backgrounds ranging from hardcore chiptune programming and industrial post-rock to classical composition and rootsy guitar blues. According to their press release, Audio Aggregate's goal is to draw upon each of their members' familiarity with disparate musical genres in order to create game music using "a wholly new palette of fresh, genre-crossing collaborations not already saturated in the mind of today's gamer."

Last week, Mike and I chatted via email about Audio Aggregate, the past and future of game audio, the state of the indie game scene, and the super-awesomeness of Ron Gilbert.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Colossal, Bald, and Colossally-Balled

By Kirk Hamilton

I beat God of War II last night. Wait, let's back up. A couple days ago, I found myself staring glassy-eyed at my screen, pressing L1 through what had to be my 45th Final Fantasy XIII battle of the evening, and I realized: I needed a break. There are plenty of things I like about the game, but it just wasn't doing it for me. So I switched gears and played God of War II instead.

At The Border House, Alex Raymond talked a bit about trying to use the word "completed" in place of "beat." I like that line of thinking, but in the case of God of War II, the latter term is entirely appropriate. You must beat this game - it demands to be bludgeoned into submission. Violence onscreen is mirrored by mashing the circle button to stab, stab, stab - teeth are gritted, tendons tighten. Completion requires violence.

God of War Collection was one of the best values on the market last year, especially for all the people (like myself) who picked up a PS3 Slim after the price drop and hadn't owned a PS2. $40 for two games, and I'd heard from a ton of folks that both of them, God of War II in particular, were as good as anything that's come out this generation. Those people were right.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Zelda Method, Revisited

By Annie Wright

Sometimes, merely finishing an RPG isn't enough. We've all experienced being drawn into the discovery of a world in which we spend hours of our day, or even days of our week. We become our avatar as we play; we form emotional attachments with those who join our party, and sometimes even with random people we meet along the road. We learn moves, expand our fighting repertoire, and develop preferences for weapons. It's not that we're untethered from the real world (well, not in MOST cases... there are always exceptions), but it takes a fairly unimaginative cynic to be totally unaffected when playing. And believe me, I know a thing or two about being cynical. Yet even at my most jaded, when faced with a daunting or unpleasant task, I've often found myself lapsing into a practice that I began when I was just out of high school. Some people have yoga, I have Zelda.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Saturday, March 13, 2010

GDC Day Two: Indie Games

By Kirk Hamilton

Nothing so long and rambling from Friday's GDC, which is doubtless a good thing. I'm already exhausted by the conference, though in retrospect I guess it makes sense that sensory overload would be the product of a conference where sensory overload is, like, the whole point.

Next year, with some planning, I'll be better prepared, and be able to attend more of the sessions I'd want to see. In the meantime, I'll have to just follow most of them on Gamasutra, or via folks' tweets. Speaking of which, there seems to be a growing trend towards live-tweeting during peoples' presentations, usually with increasing frustration or disgust. Kinda dispiriting to read, when you're missing the talk... for example, lots of folks seemed dispirited about Sid Meier's keynote address, but from what I read about it, it sounded pretty interesting.

Anyway, yesterday when I rolled into the convention center, I met up with David (now at the AMD booth, though yesterday he was at Intel. Playing both sides of the field!). After I complained a bit to him about how I wasn't yet sold on any of the stereoscopic 3D stuff I'd seen, he insisted that we check out MLB: The Show running on PS3 in 3D, and holy balls. It was so impressive... the game already looks great, but in 3D, it is honestly is like being on the field at an actual MLB game... we're talking eye-bleeding levels of sharpness.

After that, we checked out the IGF booth, which was easily the coolest part of the expo floor. All of the indie games were on display, and the designers are right there to answer any questions you might have for them. A round-up of the standouts, after the break.

Friday, March 12, 2010

GDC Day One: Dichotomies

 By Kirk Hamilton

So I'm looking over my notes from my first day at the Game Developers' Conference, and if there's one thing that strikes me more than anything else, it's the dichotomies. Indie vs. Corporate, Studio vs. Publisher, Casual vs. Hardcore, Old School vs. New, Divergent vs. Convergent, Auteurs vs. Teams, Writers vs. Designers, Art vs. Bottom Line. It's almost like there are two separate conventions going on.

I'm not sure that's different than any other large conference like GDC, but it is pretty interesting. I'm looking forward to seeing if that sort of divide runs through the festival for the next two days, too.  I'm pretty sure it will.

Anyhow, in addition to Gamasutra's insider coverage, if you really want a sense of the place, I recommend reading Matthew Wasteland's excellent posts at GameSetWatch. I'll probably write some more specific pieces about some stuff that stood out, but in the meantime, I can only offer you the impressions of one wide-eyed interloper, a rookie wandering the halls of giants, trying to take in as much as possible.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Lovely Music of Phoenix Wright

By Kirk Hamilton

Oh, Phoenix. Your games have some of my favorite music ever. Over the past few years, I've played through all three of the original Phoenix Wright games - Ace Attorney, And Justice for All, and Trials and Tribulations.  I totally fell in love with the characters, the jokes, the objection!s, the mysteries, and above all, Masakazu Sugimori's incredible music.

I've written several posts on my own blog about my admiration for both Phoenix Wright the game and Phoenix Wright the man, but I haven't ever written about the games' music. Last week, I saw Harry Milonas's great post at RedKingsDream about "Suspense," the iconic tune that plays whenever a plot twist (or, in the game's parlance, a "Turnabout") occurs.

It made me remember how much I love the music of Phoenix Wright, in particular "Maya Fey's Theme," a.k.a. "Turnabout Sisters," a.k.a. that super triumphant song that plays during the happiest moments of the first game.

I had an afternoon free, so I broke out my instruments (specifically flute, clarinet, guitars, whistling, percussion/handclaps, keyboards, mallets, and a couple sampled instruments), sat down with Pro Tools, and recorded my own version. It was really fun. When I finished recording, I figured I'd make a video combining the music with some screenshots from the game and fan art from around the internet. It actually came together into a pretty victorious, appropriately enthusiastic (and cheesy) tribute to Phoenix, The Feys, Miles, and the rest of the lovable cast of the Ace Attorney games.

I hope you enjoy it! If you'd like, you can download an MP3 of the recording here. And man, after spending a few hours going through pictures of Feenie and the gang, I really do hope I get to see them again soon.

Monday, March 8, 2010

GDC Attendee's Guide to San Francisco

By Kirk Hamilton & The Gamer Melodico Staff

This week, our lovely city of San Francisco (well, most of ours, anyway - Somebody still thinks she's auditioning to join the cast of Singles) opens its doors to game creators, writers, studio executives, and journalists from around the world for the annual Game Developer's Conference. Welcome one and all!

The GM crew and I know that you're planning on spending most of the week safe inside the Moscone Center, bathed in the warm glow of LCD monitors and PR spin, but we love our town enough to at least try to suggest a few spots around the city that you could check out.

All the links below lead to directions from the Moscone center to the best food, beer, and nightlife we can recommend. Also, if you're using the bus, we recommend using NextMuni to plan your schedule, or even better, downloading iCommute SF, a hella-useful MUNI app for the iPhone.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Heavy Rain Round-Up

By Kirk Hamilton

So, you may have noticed that I had a particularly vehement reaction to Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain. (though did anyone else notice that in the game's title, the "Rain" is italicized?  So, according to AP style, should we then reverse them and write the title as Heavy Rain? Dan? Anyone?)

Anyway. When I finished the game, I felt cheated, like it hadn't played fair with the controls, and the story that I had been suspending so much disbelief to get invested in resolved in such a thoroughly disappointing and unsatisfying manner that at the time, I wrote that I wanted to "kick the game in the nuts."

Well. As a few in the comments here and elsewhere pointed out, the main thing I was mad about were the consequences of the game - which, the argument goes, in truth meant that it was a success. That's true to a point - if I hadn't gotten the horrible ending I got, I wouldn't have felt nearly as upset about it. But all the same, I still feel that the controls really were problematically manipulative, and aside from that, I had so many other issues with the game as a whole that I can't really call it... good.  Whatever "good" means, anyway.

I've been doing a lot of reflecting and decompressing by reading various takes on it all over the internet, and it's been really helpful to see what everyone else thinks.  I thought I'd present a few posts that I particularly enjoyed, with some of my own thoughts, too.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gaming For Nomads Part 3: Dead Fish and Giant Bunnies

By Annie Wright

Scarygirl is another side-scroller, but unlike my other favorite online scroller, this one is a bit more involved. To start with, it offers a much more complex narrative than you would ever dare to hope for in a free online game. The titular main character, an orphan who lives in a tree, Scarygirl appears to be at least part zombie, sports an eyepatch, and generally behaves like a curious little girl. One arm is a bony stump, and the other is a squidlike tentacle on which our heroine wears a pirate hook (yes, this is your mode of attack!).

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Games & Music - Changing The Yardstick

By Kirk Hamilton
Art Detail - "Tipping Through The Grass" by Benny Andrews

Edge Online recently posted a piece about games, music, and film by one of their resident columnists, Chris Dahlen, a writer and blogger whose stuff I really dig. In the column, Chris argued that despite all the talk from mainstream developers about making their games more like movies, games as an art form share more with music than with cinema. I gotta hand it to him - that is one gorilla of a topic to tackle in 800 words or less.

The column raised all sorts of thoughts and questions for me, so I figured that now was as good a time as any to write some of them down and join the conversation. But beyond my own thoughts on the matter, I believe that Chris's larger point about re-thinking how we measure the artistic qualities of games is a very important one.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Heavy Rain: Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

By Kirk Hamilton

I finished Heavy Rain late last night. I wrote a bunch, much of it rant-like, but decided to wait to post anything until morning to see if the anger had subsided a bit. Nope, still here. Muted, perhaps, but burning with no less intensity. So, fair warning.

Heavy Rain did a lot of things for me (and even more things to me). Some of them were pretty amazing, many of them incredibly frustrating. But damned if I wasn't more angered by the last 30 minutes than I have been by any game for as long as I can remember.  Somewhat unfocused thoughts, including major spoilers, follow right after the break. If you haven't finished the game, I suggest you read no further.