Madden NFL ’94

My initiation into the Ways of the American was a brutal one.  I had just got off the plane, set my bags down in the dorm, ready to have a lie down, when the Three Matts (I lived with three guys called Matt – creepy or convenient?  You decide!) tugged at my arm.

“C’mon Ossy (that’s how Americans pronounce ‘Aussie’.  Protip: it’s actually pronounced ‘Ozzy’ as in ‘Ozzy Osborne’)!  There’s a game on out back!”

“A game on?  What, like Halo, ’cause that’d be super-sweet (my Fratboy-anese was starting to come together at this stage)!”

I lost a fair few brain cells that day (for reasons which will soon become apparent), so my recollection at this point of the conversation is a little hazy.  But basically they explained to me that despite having just got off the plane, and despite my apparent state of jet-lag, they were about to thrust me headfirst into a game of American football, and yes, they were deadly serious.  I don’t know what they were thinking, to be honest – maybe they were under the misconception that I wrestled crocs on a regular basis, and figured I could handle it – but American frat-boys are renowned for their over-exuberance, and so I obliged.  I put on some shorts and a singlet and headed out to the oval with the Matts three.

Upon our arrival, it was widely announced that there was an ‘Ossy’ in their midst, and I think I heard whispers of crocodiles and magic boomerangs.  This was not good.  I was going to get hurt.

I played it cool, though.  That is to say, I played the n00b, and asked lots of questions about the rules.

“Is this okay?”
“What do you do when the guy with the ball comes at you?”

I think I diffused their over-enthusiasm just a little bit with this charade, though I did still get the snot beaten out of me.  See, I actually did know the rules, I just didn’t understand them.  Everything I knew I learned from NFL 2K for the Sega Dreamcast.  Being that it was the only decent DC game  I owned that wasn’t Sonic Adventure initially, I actually grew quite familiar with the sport of American football, dare I say even fond of it.  It became a vested interest a month later when I was living in Seattle and the Seahawks had made it to the Superbowl (sadly to lose to the appropriately-named Steelers, who stole the victory – I maintain – thanks to a series of dubious calls from the referees).

I did that.  No really, I did.
I did that. No really, I did.

But understanding – truly understanding – the sport of American football cannot be taught.  It’s part of America’s cultural DNA.  It’s a strangely regimented and heavily codified form of football – specific formations with specific plays, with specific positions taking specific pathways – and surprisingly so, given the nation’s cultural aversion to Colonial Britain’s stick-up-the-ass mentality and America’s generally freewheelin’ ways.  The number of set plays that can be employed in any given game of American football is absolutely mind-boggling, and memorising their names alone must be a pain in the ass, let alone their tactical benefits and deficits.  “Middle Joker Sky” (is that even a real play name?), “All Fire Press”, and the “Statue of Liberty play” are terms that appeal to me, but ultimately mean nothing to me.  Sometimes I yell out random words and numbers for the hell of it…

Despite my ignorance, I have over the years developed a great respect for the sport.  I like to think of it as a game of chess between two coaches, except all the pieces are sentient, and both sides execute their moves (nay, a full game of chess) simultaneously each ‘turn’.  Each team has a specialised line-up for offense and defence, and specialisation in the workforce is something to be admired.  But it’s the things that separate American football from other football codes that I believe do not lend themselves to good videogaming.  Translated to a videogame, it doesn’t really know what kind of game it’s trying to be.  It’s essentially a turn-based strategy game whereby both teams take their turn at the same time.  Once selected, you must then execute your turn in real-time.  It sort of feels like trying to swim against a tidal wave of your own making.  Set play and improvised play are two dissonant notions that I can’t seem to hold in stead (how do you play Civ II and Starcraft at the same time?).  The crunch and flow of each play execution is continually interrupted by huddles and line-up switches.  Conversely, the huddles are too short to make any sort of sensible decision without having memorised the entire playbook (this is where the DNA comes into it).  And because both teams select their plays at the same time, they can’t really respond to the opposition other than on the fly.  And yes, I know none of these things pose a problem to the real-life NFL quarterback, but I believe they are a problem for your average gamer.

WTF?!
WTF?!

Is there a solution?  I suspect not – not if the authentic NFL experience is to be maintained.  As people complain each year, the NFL videogame formula hasn’t really changed that much at all, even between Madden NFL ’94 and NFL 2K.  (Though here’s a piece of craziness that will blow your mind: Visual Concepts, the developers of Madden‘s arch-rival NFL 2K series, also developed Madden NFL ’94 and ’95.)  In all honesty, I believe they refined the formula as much as they could – long ago – without fundamentally messing with the sport itself, or without drastically altering the input method for videogames (watch this space!).  Seemingly all they have done is improve the bullet points of graphics, sound, and extra modes, which is to be expected.

Vintage Madden.
Vintage Madden.

HOWEVER, if someone was to develop a videogame based on backyard American football, I’d be all for it.  There was no lack of crunch or flow that sunny afternoon in Alabama.  There were no huddles (okay, maybe one), no line-up switches – everything was spontaneous, and the momentum of the game never slowed.  Sure, we weren’t as good as the pros of the NFL (especially not I!); and sure, I had a busted lip and a cocktail of jet-lag and concussion by the end of it; but we were having a great time.  I even smashed a guy with a Rugby League tackle (don’t worry, he was the receiver!).  When he struggled to get back on his feet, I asked aloud, “is that legal?  Am I allowed to do that?”  The three Matt-keteers just laughed and high-fived me.

WHOOP!
"Young offensive weapons" -- WHOOP!

An American football videogame without the trappings of pre-planning sounds like something I’d be interested in playing.

Lufia II


This made me laugh out loud for a good three or four minutes.
This made me laugh out loud for a good three or four minutes.

I played this game for about seven minutes, counting the time I spent laughing at that screenshot.

Apparently, a lot of people liked this game, or something?  Whatever.  If they’re not even going to try, if they’re going to produce that, then I’m not going to bother either.

I said to myself, “Myself,” I said, “if this game starts in a town with less than ten buildings and about that many people, and if they say the same thing over and over and over when you talk to them, I’m not going to play this game.”

So here I am.

But apparently this game contains a side-question which is a 99-level tower, each level randomly generated, with puzzles, monsters, treasure, etc.  The interesting thing is that it actually puts you back to level 1 with zero experience and almost no items, and you only get your shit back at the end when you die or manage to defeat the final enemy – a massive red jelly which kills itself after four turns in the turn-based combat system, removing any chance of getting its item drops unless you kill it in three turns.

That’s right, this shitty little game contains Diablo as a side quest, and that side-quest ends with a hilarious HAHAHA FUCK YOU.

So it’s not that bad, I guess.

I'm not sure why one of the most common enemies is something you put on toast.
I'm not sure why one of the most common enemies you face with sword in hand is something you put on toast.

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom

In case you haven’t had enough of 16-bit console RPGs, here’s another!

lufia-title

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve come to enjoy many of the classic RPGs of the era, despite never having a Super Nintendo growing up (I was fortunate enough to grab a TurboGrafx-16 back in those days, although not quite fortunate enough to acquire the CD attachment with which I could’ve further damaged myself playing Ys Book I & II for hours on end). It’s unfortunate really, as such games require a fair deal of time investment to get through, whereas work and borderline alcoholism have severely limited my ability to focus on extracurricular activities over the years.

But I digress.

lufia-confused

Lufia & the Fortress of Doom takes the standard ’90s RPG formula and more or less gives it right back to you without trying too hard. Linear storyline taking place in a fantasy setting? Check. Endless random encounters and turn-based combat? Also check. Add your typical character and inventory management as well, and you’ve got yourself a game! SHIP IT!!

So, now wait a sec, you might be thinking, “Well, most Final Fantasy games do about the same, so what makes them ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE in a manner dissimilar to Lufia?” While I can’t really vouch for the power of the Scorpions delivered in video-game form, I’ll try to play along…

For starters, the storyline is fairly weak. In a gist, a group of “evil beings” that were thought to have been defeated nearly a century earlier seem to be making a comeback, and—brace yourself—they want to destroy everything. Not really sure why; it’s just their thing. Either way, the main character ends up being the one who has to venture out to save the world, along with his stalwart party of companions. Now, I may be able to forgive a generic storyline (which is often the case with most video games), but the dialog was so awkward and painful that I almost tried to locate the Japanese version just so I wouldn’t understand what was going on (fortunately, exhaustion and alcohol eventually took care of that issue).

EEEEVVVVIIIIIILLLLL!!!
EEEEVVVVIIIIIILLLLL!!!

Combat isn’t too special, either. Everyone takes turns attacking, casting spells, defending, or using items. Encounters are, for the most part, random, so moments when you’re trying to get somewhere so you can save the game and switch the TV to America’s Next Top Model before it starts can be a bit frustrating when you’re interrupted every now and then by an angry bowl of Jell-O trying to pick a fight.

lufia-jellyfish

I mean, I didn’t completely hate this game. It’s effective enough as a time waster. You can do better with a console RPG, though. You can also do much worse.

The Lost Vikings II

Robo-vikings in the future?  And people said that Too Human was groundbreaking! Lies!
Robo-vikings in the future? And people said that Too Human was groundbreaking! Lies!

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’ve never really played the original Lost Vikings. There’s something about a game that makes you essentially go through each level three times (and more if you fuck up) that I think is pretty shitty. I guess, on one hand, you sort of can’t beat the legacy of this game. If you consider that Trine is basically the Lost Vikings with a physics engine, and that people seem to think Trine is pretty great, you realize that Blizzard was on to something with these two games. On the other hand, you also don’t really do the same thing with all three characters so it’s not fair of me to say you’re just doing the same thing three times in a row. And, I mean, here I am taking it somewhat seriously instead of being all “hay, it’s old SNES you guys lolololoololololol it’s so gays”, and that’s got to be worth something.

There's so much I don't understand about this... like... ok, I get that teleporting people is difficult and probably moreso than crop dusting, but I think the implication here is that crop dusting is really easy and that the hard part is mixing ingrediants but even that's easy, I guess?  What?
There's so much I don't understand about this... like... ok, I get that teleporting people is difficult and probably moreso than crop dusting, but I think the implication here is that crop dusting is really easy and that the hard part is mixing ingredients but even that's easy, I guess? What? And like, how the fuck would a bunch of vikings know what crop dusting is?

As much as I think Blizzard could use a new Intellectual Property (also, I’m amazed they haven’t brought these guys back for anything more grand than a cameo in a WoW instance), they do know how to make entertaining games. The dialog in LVII is pretty good. Although I guess there’s a playstation/dreamcast version that’s all 3D-ish and has a pile of voice acting and what I saw on youtube seemed super creepy. You can also tell that blizzard haven’t really grown up that much since 1994, either, because all the women you meet are sexy magicians and all the jokes are about the fat one being hungry or fart noises.

Our heroes are rescued by the GLAAD valkyrie or something... the fat one has plummer-ass.  Bravo, Blizzard.
Our heroes are rescued by the GLAAD tranny valkyrie or something... the fat one has plummer-ass. Bravo, Blizzard.

I guess what’s more important is that even having played only a small portion of this game, I can admit that I was wrong about Lost Vikings. It’s pretty fun to sort out these increasingly complicated problems where each character has their ups and downs. While I’ve largely grown out of the sort of humor in this game, I sort of have to remind myself that in 1994 not a lot of adults were playing games and they were still mostly considered elaborate toys. And this fact, coupled with Blizzard’s juvenile pre-epic-cutscene days, means I can cut them some slack for making a game where a green alien named “Tomator” (Tomatoes are red, man) has some nonsense vendetta against three vikings who apparently don’t really have any idea what they’re doing but they seem to be surprisingly relaxed about being teleported through time and also whenever they meet some sexy woman with stipulations for help they don’t just rape her and take her things because vikings.

Lost Vikings

The Vikings, They Are Lost. And Badass
The Vikings, They Are Lost. And Badass

So I have a project. This is the first in a series of reviews where there’s no outside internet access, no research. I can’t tell you that ICO is really just a really good remake of Casper or anything like that. This time it’s going to be oldschool, the way we used to play them in our frigid dens with our big gulps and Ruffles. No internet, no manual, this is a rental off the shelf.

The Lost Vikings is perfect. From concept through to execution, every step of the design just works. It’s semiotically intuitive; save for one or two power-ups, everything pretty much does what it says on the tin. Food heals, enemies hurt, terrain kills. The objective is simple, get from the beginning of the level to the end. Each viking has a set of abilities. Olaf (the fat one) has a shield that blocks near everything and can float slowly down with it. Erik, the one that looks like Asterix, can run really fast, jump, and ram obstacles with his helmet. The other guy (whose name I forget and is less stereotypically viking) hits guys. Here’s a level, solve the puzzle, rinse, repeat. You get into a groove of using one character to scout the surroundings and finish the puzzle, and thrown off when a new gameplay element enters.

BY THE MILK OF FRIGGA!
BY THE MILK OF FRIGGA!

In this way, the game is performative. You are a lost viking on a fucked up spaceship taken away from your family after a seemingly uneventful hunting trip. Every part of the game starts foreign to you with little introduction and the second you get a handle on your surroundings, the setting changes completely, everything you’ve worked out shifts. The puzzles work because they keep you puzzled, because everything is easy to understand but difficult to assemble into an overall whole.

Just by splitting the player’s capabilities between three actors the game does something innovative, forcing the player to use the different vikings in conjunction with each other. And come on, it’s fun. Vikings were, my understanding is, badass. They were warriors with long hair (which was definitely not the style at the time), and despite their contemporaries calling them ‘braids’ and ‘longie longhair’ and a series of other nonsensical but hair-related epithets, they raped and pillaged their way into our hearts. If there was some sort of historical badass hall of fame they would likely be in it. Also, they maybe discovered Newfoundland?

17 years after its creation, The Lost Vikings remains ridiculously original, an interesting and inspiring addition to a platform that was choked with a glut of terrible platformers and franchise titles.

That, my friends, is an effing funeral.
That, my friends, is an effing funeral.

Lock On

Hold me closer, tiny dancer
Hold me closer, tiny dancer

So, flu season has struck to the heart of this writer, dear reader! Alas, I am struck to the heart, with flu, and symptoms thereof.

I’m all delirious and shit. I think. I’m not quite sure if any of this is real, actually.

A moment ago, my space-plane was zooming after bitty hexagons on the horizon and blowing them to hell. Now I’m writing about it, like a war hero/journalist coming back from the front lines only to be ridiculed because he/she didn’t bring back any jam for tea. WTF! I brought back marmalade, that’s almost jam!

Everything has to be about war! WHY? And why is war so fuckin’ easy? Is American space-plane technology so good that they can ram a warhead up a womp-rat from a distance of eighty light-years? Probably. Yeah, unlike every other game created for this system, this game is pretty easy. All you gotta do is shoot missiles all the time and blast your laser like it’s your favourite drug. The bad guys come at you four at a time, but no problem for you, cause you have a secret weapon: a little blippy thing that comes out the back of you and makes the missile go, “I’ve grown tired of life,” and blow itself up.

Count the headlights on the highway
Count the headlights on the highway

Seems like a waste of a good missile, really.

And this is so much of a flight sim that you can’t even crash. It’s actually impossible. You can try, but your super-techno space-plane will gradually ease back on the stick in its papa-knows-best way. “Why won’t you let me end this??!” sprach Jared to the sky, with foaming mud rolling down shoulders so cold. I have no God but the one who meets my needs!”

AND THE GODS HAVE MERCY! My ship, gorged on fuel, sinks low. The screen, he sayeth, “fin,” and I believe.

Narrator: Without any fuel left, Jared cannot continue his reign as the Freddie Prinze Jr. of the skies. He is stranded, alone and hungry, on one of those many repeating islands below. This one is called “England.”

Now England is a tall and funny sort of nation, with butter and bread and cats-up (what the fuck is cats-up??).

Jared: If you’ll take the time to examine Scott’s review that he wrote while he was sick, you’ll see that I’ve done a terrible job. In fact, I’ve only been able to accomplish two of the tasks on his checklist, you jimmy-wimblers, nancy-boys, charlie-nogoods.

Oh, here’s a try for the last one: what do when you mix a man and a woman who love each other very much? A child with many of their characteristics.

CHECK!

Looney Tunes B-Ball

There’s a reason people are getting excited for the new Mickey game.  Mickey Mouse, by and large, has a heritage of pretty good videogames, and Disney has respected the videogame medium (and their characters) enough to roll up their sleeves and make the games themselves.  When was the last time you saw Mickey Mouse in a cartoon or film?  Never, right?  But you *have* seen him in Kingdom Hearts.

Things have changed, Warner Bros.  Videogames don’t play second fiddle anymore, and you failed to see it coming.  You didn’t respect the medium or your characters enough to treat a videogame as anything more than just another piece of merchandise.  And so now we have abominations like Bugs Bunny: Rabbit Rampage and Looney Tunes B-Ball to contend with.

Look at those four on the bottom of the screen.  Just happy to be there!
Look at those four on the bottom of the screen. Just happy to be there!

Being the great house of animation that you once were, you *could* have sat down with this new-fangled ‘computer game’ thang and tried to work it all out.  Of all the studios, you could have created the most beautifully fluid animated works of the 2-D gaming era.  Instead you commissioned hacks like Sunsoft and Acclaim to butcher your legacy in no time at all.

Take Looney Tunes B-Ball for instance.  This could have been the Mario Kart of basketball games.  What we have instead is a dull, drab, street b-ball game with Looney Tunes characters pasted in.  I could have just glued their heads to paddle-pop sticks and it would have been more enjoyable.  Nay, this could have been better than Mario Kart and NBA Jam.  We expect madness from Bugs and Daffy, and we sure as hell expect more than stiff pie-throwing animations.  Slapstick humour is more contextual in a Looney Tunes game than it will ever be in Mario or the NBA – neither of them are funny in their own right – they were merely placed in humorous situations.  Conversely, here I find America’s funniest cartoon characters placed in a decidedly unfunny situation.  You have to collect gems to purchase powerups during play of the ball fer cryin’ out loud (and that’s before you can even use them)!  Why not just cut out the middle men and have them collect the powerups direct instead?  And why not eliminate the need for another button press, and have the powerups kick in immediately upon pickup?  It makes sense in a stupid NBA Jam kinda way.

Ehhh...no.  Not today.
Ehhh...no. Not today.

Do you think maybe you could have spared a comedy writer and an animator or two to help out with the game?  What’s that, they were all busy working on Space Jam?  Wait a minute, SPACE JAM? Isn’t that that movie where the LOONEY TUNES play BASKETBALL in OUTER SPACE?! What did you do, tell the guys at Scultpured Software that you were *maybe* thinking of doing a Looney Tunes cartoon where they play basketball?  You didn’t even tell them about Space Jamdid you? Did you ever consider that maybe you could have developed the game in tandem with the film, take a little more time to make the game actually good; add in a few more characters like, I don’t know, Foghorn Leghorn, Tweetie Pie, Speedy Gonzales, Pepe Le Pew, Road Runner, Porky Pig, MICHAEL JORDAN AND BILL MURRAY?  Was da scwipt to Space Jam weally so sacwed dat you couldn’t share da wuv wid da iddy-biddy game makers?

The same team ended up doing the Space Jam movie tie-in anyway!  Instead of rushing two mediocre games out the door, you could have commissioned the New Greatest Basketball Game on the Planet.  But you didn’t.  You were happy to pump out just another piece of merchandise.  And here we are, years later, not giving a damn about your characters or anything they appear in.

There’s a reason the world waits with bated breath for Epic Mickey and not Epic Bugs:

Relevance.

You missed the boat, Bugs.  You could have been ahead of the curve, but you got sloppy.  Now all we have to remember you by is a collection of crappy videogames.

"That's all Folks!"
"That's all Folks!"