Super Slapshot

AI is really really interesting. I don’t mean the science fiction BS about machines overthrowing their human oppressors (though that is undeniably interesting in its own right) but rather AI as a question of implementation. The first two years of a computer science degree are basically basic classes in machine psychology. In essence, you spend a lot of time learning what computers can and cannot do well and why they can or cannot do it. The practical applications of this are vast, and it sets you up for a long and accursed existence of yelling at your television every time computers are abused as a deus ex machina, because everything in fiction should be plausible.

In a vast majority of cases, the question of practical AI is one of simply making your agent act smart but in time to fulfill whatever objective. Computers are pretty good at coming up with complete solutions given however much time they need, and are less good at coming up with a good enough solution right now. When it’s properly implemented, the results are basically magic, here’s a short demonstration.

Now this is the result of some pretty heavy computation on a decently modern machine, which is part of why it’s magic, because doing the same thing on a 16 bit processor with limited memory is. Well it’s very hard.

So given that I’ve been sperging on AI this weekend and I really don’t want to drop another review on the pile of “phh, hockey, whatever jock” vs. “god stop being such a nerd sports enthusiasm is no less ridiculous than, say, reviewing every game ever“, we’re going to watch super slapshot play itself and see how it fares.

For the purpose of this test I chose Israel vs. Sweden. I thought it would be a fitting match up due to Israel’s scrappy and well known prowess both offensively and defensively and Sweden because they are a country with ice. It was only about 9 minutes in length and and neither put up a very good fight during play itself.

You do not need ice to play a strong game of Hockey.

The goalies were veritable ironclad juggernaut destroyer battleships, neither letting a single goal through even when Israel was shorthanded two players. I literally know maybe the first and second things about hockey, but I’m pretty sure the game isn’t played that way.

It came down to an overtime shootout which Sweden, who aside from absolutely stellar supernova goaltending played a pretty miserable offensive game, took handily by scoring two goals like it was nothing.

Now if you could have done that like 7 minutes earlier, this would have been a game of hockey.

What I’ve learned about hockey and AI today:

-Skate pathing and dodging while maintaining realistic movement must be a really neat and interesting problem to tackle.

-Shooting AI is probably boring because the goalies are invincible supermen.

-Israel got like 4 penalties, including 2 at a time, the Swedes got none, couldn’t close the deal when they were 2 players up, played passively, and took it at the end of the game. The programmers may have had some ideas about nations.

Super Mario World

Turtles can have no shells planes can be diagonal watch out you should probably jump right about now.

After playing the first five minutes of a wealth of 16-bit platformers they all start to feel a little bit samey. The side-scroller format is pretty limited in its breadth of expression, but as a result a well made platformer can be a pretty effective experience. The games start to feel like interactive sheet music or language; the challenges are similar to those of sight reading. Your first task is to decipher the intent of the design by reading it and then, with plenty of room for improvisation, execute it.

Platformers are just rhythm games with a little more space to back up and more ways to recover from a mistake. The rest is just a matter of reading and negotiating an idiom. In the same way sheet music notation has evolved from imprecise and arcane methods of timekeeping and notation, platformers have refined down to a few nearly universal symbols of danger, desired outcome, and hints to overcome challenges.

The Super Mario series of games is arguably the most influential in defining a platformer idiom; you’d likely be hard pressed to find anyone making a platformer that doesn’t cite its designs as important influences. One of the reasons, I believe, for this, is the chance to iterate the design over 3 decades now. The language has slowly built into a series of nearly universal heiroglyphs. Pipes, tubes and pots can take you elsewhere. Distinct blocks offer reward. Frowny faces indicate enemies. It’s interesting to go back and play the earlier Mario games because the first level or two operate as a demonstration of the new grammatical elements of the game. Super Mario World is no different. In some 20 screens nearly every new concept you need to get by in the game world is demonstrated. If you’ve somehow managed to miss the previous iterations, this gives plenty of time to catch up.

Some enemies take two hits now. Slanted pipes probably don't take you anywhere.

Most of the games in the series don’t stop at mere introduction, either. The learning curve for Mario World is constant, combining existing elements into new concepts. The game, when played, can be read as a narrative or an instruction manual. It’s a sort of learning machine that can read in text like this:

turtles without shells retain mobility, diagonal planes are common, pits are fatal, diagonal pipes go nowhere, bullets come in larger varieties, plants can fly from pipes, some enemies take two hits, spin jumping is more shallow but more fatal, additional power ups can be stored, 50% progress is marked, shells can be fired omnidirectionally, fire works the same, beware the football players, congratulations!

And every level works like this, the grammar becoming less crude and more refined to create more complex sentences like “Upon eating red shells, Yoshi can spit fire.” This implies high level knowledge of the game and that you have already completed and learned other actions.

It’s possible that every game boils down to this, a simple how-to dialogue between player and machine until, when the player has achieved some competence, they can explore and make the game sing in the way the designers intended.

Quit Now.

Super Mario RPG

What’s the point of an RPG? I ask honestly, because I’m not exactly sure. I can think of two possible ways to interpret the title “Role Playing Game.” The first is that you play a role in the story and in the creation of the character. The second is that you passively “act” a role already scripted for you. I prefer the former, but Super Mario RPG is the latter.

It’s a story we all know: the Princess has been kidnapped, likely by the aggressive dinosaur, and I guess he’s raping her, or whatever. It’s Mario’s job to get her back. Now, I didn’t finish this game, but I expect that he will do so, and without much deviation from that task. Along the way, some random-ass-crap will probably happen, though it may be hard to beat the introduction to the game, which involves an enormous sword stabbing downward into the vagina that is Bowser’s castle, and taking control of it by vibrating. It’s very much a “who’s your daddy” kind of moment, and Mario wants nothing of it. What the giant sword has done to the princess, we can only guess. How Mario will overcome the monstrous talking weapon is a mystery, but it overcome it will be.

The sword looks angry. Mario should watch himself.

Mario is, of course, Mario. And there isn’t really much wiggle room there. Mario’s traits involve: Bravery, Peppyness, Italianness, Sometime-Cowardice, and that’s about it. He wears red clothing and jumps high. His beauty is in his simplicity, absolutely, but does anyone feel as though they can identify with Mario? He’s not much of a protagonist.

But still, Super Mario RPG is a charmer. It seems like, with their RPGs, Nintendo really lets the wacky cat out of the bag. Lots of weird, weird stuff happens. I enjoy that.

Super Mario Kart

Word to the wise: don’t get your flatmate hooked on Mario Kart.

Oh, you might think it’s terrific at first having a Player 2 at the ready, but you’ve got to understand: it’s not just a “bridge title”; it’s a gateway drug.

Marx was wrong. Mario Kart is the Opiate of the Masses.

It’s like being married to a nymphomaniac – you might think that’s an awesome problem to have, but wait until you’re red, raw, run down, and can’t get a damn thing done*; then let’s see what you have to say about it. Oh yes, you can most definitely have too much of a good thing. Try telling that to my flatmate, though, who’ll happily put “World on a String” (as performed by Michael Bublé) on repeat for the entire duration of the morning commute, because it gets him pumped for a day at work.

I’ve worked long and hard at expanding his horizons, but it seems he can only latch onto one new thing at a time before culture club is adjourned. Oh well, I suppose listening to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack on repeat instead of Billy Joel is progress.

Thus far, I have failed to replace Super Mario Kart Wii. Can you see how that might be a problem?

I have another friend who’s stuck on Super Mario Kart. Not stuck as in “can’t finish it”, but stuck as in he keeps coming back to it. He uses the Classic Controller on Mario Kart Wii, if only to simulate playing it on a SNES. I’m pretty sure his frustration with the Wii version is parallel with my feelings “going back” to the SNES version. What he may see as impurities introduced to the Wii version, I see as tweaks missing from the SNES version. Nonetheless, Super Mario Kart is an experience enshrined with very good reason.

I’ve seen it referred to as an abstraction of go-karting, but it’s more an abstraction of Super Mario Bros. Your adversaries are your timer, as your driver jumps, hits question mark blocks for powerups, throws shells, and avoids obstacles to reach the finish line [flagpole]. It’s Mario in 3D, essentially, and a testament to the primal strength of the Super Mario Bros. game design.

It’s Wacky Races: The Videogame, where everybody knows your name playing dirty is a virtue, and mischief is encouraged. So many great games revel in the fun of mischief made.

For every time Nintendo has been berated for making “kiddie” games, they should be applauded for their timeless aesthetic choices. What separates Super Mario Kart (and indeed, any Nintendo game) from the rest of the dross is this thing we in the biz like to call “art direction”. This vibrant cast of characters wouldn’t look out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon, and I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing.  Donkey Kong, Luigi, Yoshi, Bowser, and Princess Peach have each become so familiar they can headline their own games and still sell a million copies.

I picked Yoshi because he looks like he has a thermometer in his mouth.

It blew the Mario game wide open – beyond platformers – into racers, sports, RPGs, and fighters. It was just a great idea.

Super Mario Kart deserves every bit of nostalgia lavished on it. Everything about it is memorable. Just don’t show it to your flatmate.

* This review was delayed by at least two days due to Flatmate Mario Kart Addiction.

Super Mario All-Stars

Oh come on, that could be anybody.

Gaming has some axioms. Here are a few:

  • Coins are good. You should collect them.
  • Powerups are often hidden in plain sight.
  • The princess is very likely in another castle.

We can thank Mario (or Shigeru Miyamoto) for them.

Mario games are typically very good. This isn’t up for debate. Sure, there are exceptions. We’ve reviewed a bunch. Some merely trigger your nostalgia reflex (gland? I like to think it’s a gland). The majority, however, are excellent. When I found out I was going to review Super Mario All-Stars I was sort of excited at the idea of writing a little bit about each of the most beloved games of my generation. I was also sort of terrified. It’s Mario, after all. He’s super. Super great.

I always found this box art a little weird. Because like, fireballs didn't go through bricks and also what would quickly jumping at one accomplish. Misleading.

Of course, you don’t really need to review each of the NES Mario games. The original Mario Bros is incredible. It’s both casual and “core”. It has appeal to just about anyone. That the game keeps going after you’ve finished it speaks to the era in which it was created. Luigi who? And what’s more, everyone had it. If you didn’t have it, it didn’t matter, because everyone else had it. It’s a cultural phenomenon that crosses generations. It’s pretty close to universal.

Lies.

Mario Bros 2 is, I believe, the cult favorite. This is probably the case because of how far a departure it is from the game-play of the games that bookend it. Also I believe that people enjoy throwing vegetables at transgendered birds. The game feels zany. And that’s because it’s not really a Mario game but Doki Doki Panic. Mario 2 is actually “the lost levels”, which way less of us played because “lost levels” sounds like B-Sides, and very few people want to listen to B-Sides (I do, for the record, but I still don’t really care about “the lost levels”).

God, this box art brings back memories. Just look at it. Pretend it's in your hands. Go "holy shit".

Mario 3 is also incredible, but so few of us have played through the whole game (warp whistles, right?) that I feel like it got short shrift. Raccoon action for the win. That frog suit was sort of bullshit (not until New Super Mario Brothers Wii did water-based suits make sense of any kind). Riding in those boots was pretty awesome, though. It’s ridiculous that people like this game less than Mario 2. It’s so obviously better. I guess that’s what happens when you give people a character choice and then put them back in Mario’s shoes.

But here’s the thing about Super Mario All-Stars. It is not the sum of it’s parts. It’s actually somehow worse. And the worst part about this assertion is that I’m not entirely sure I can even make my argument convincingly. There’s this though:

Everyone I know who had Super Mario All-Stars didn’t really play it.

It was a pack-in. It was sure cool and all. You could save your progress. That was essential, actually, because I believe that at least half of my generation never actually played all of any Mario game because of warp pipes, warp vases, and warp whistles. With saves, you didn’t need to leave your NES on overnight (if you did that… I didn’t, but I had friends who did). But even with re-imagined graphics, I believe that the incentive to play All-Stars was low.

I still can't figure out if I care that they re-did the graphics. I think I'm ok with it. We all know what it looked like before anyway.

There’s also the graphic re-imagination that probably rubbed some folks the wrong way before there were internet forums to really galvanize sentiment. That’s the sort of thing that people would lose their shit about today. At the time it was like “well of course, this isn’t the dark ages.” (As an aside, I’ve been picking my way through the Monkey Island 2 remake happily swapping back and forth between new and old-school views thinking to myself “why doesn’t everyone else do this?”)

I wouldn’t argue that this game sat completely un-played. I know there are people who played the shit out of this game. But I also feel like those were people who didn’t have an NES and got the SNES bundle. That’s awesome, because it’s basically an epic baptism in Nintendo. But I also believe that maybe the experience doesn’t mean as much without the wait between the releases. (As an aside, this is sort of like how I feel about the Lord of the Rings films, in that a year was a perfect amount of time to wait before watching the next movie in the series. I can’t fathom ever wanting to watch all three at once.)

So yes, of course this game (this collection of games) is great. My colleague said as much. But I think it’s worth noting that it’s maybe not as great as each game was initially or in a standalone fashion. Or maybe I’m just trying to be controversial because I can’t really think of anything else to talk about when talking about Mario.

Who knows?

Mortal Kombat

mk01

As much as I think Mortal Kombat was/is a pretty shitty fighting game, it deserves our attention.  For those of us in the Capcom or SNK school of fighting games Mortal Kombat always seemed pretty stripped down.  Every character had identical regular moves and were only differentiated by their specials and fatalities.  Out of 7 total characters, two of them even looked identical.  I’ll get to the fatalities in a bit, but mostly Mortal Kombat made for a pretty shallow fighting game compared to its competition.  And, I guess, what’s even more striking about Mortal Kombat is that the franchise stayed this way for some time but maintained a level of popularity that is more or less completely incongruent with most other Acclaim/Midway titles.  I don’t know many gamers who would consider the Midway logo as much more than a seal of mediocrity.  Sort of like the Nintendo Seal of Quality today (burn).

mk02
So many choices! Decidedly less stereotypes, though! Progress?

The original Mortal Kombat for SNES was a big deal, though.  I remember crowding around the TV the first time a friend rented this game.  I would have been in grade 4 or 5.  There were so many rumors about the game floating around in our tiny, misinformed heads:

“I hear this game is SUPER GORY“.

“Yeah, but Nintendo are a bunch of pussies and made the blood look like sweat! Pussies!”

“I hear on Sega you can see Sonya’s boobies!”

“Oh yeah?  I heard that in the arcade version you can do sex with her!”

“Cool!!!” (awkward boners abound)

“I heard that there’s a code to make it even more bloody!”

“Chris’ brother heard from a magazine that if your parents split up they’ll each buy you this game to prove that they love you!”

“No way!”

I actually wrote a completely different review before thinking about the ways that Mortal Kombat has been influential.  Just think about your life with Video Games at the age of 10.  If you were a console kid like I was, you probably had your Ninja Turtles, Double Dragon, Mario, Ninja Gaiden, Tetris… I dunno.  Ducktails?  For many of us Mortal Kombat was the first Hyperviolent game we ever played.  Everything before this was cartoony.  Even though the greyish-brown bio-chunks that flew out of fighters in the Super Nintendo version didn’t look like blood, our imagination certainly filled in the gaps just fine. But here were people, digitally rendered and motion captured, being impaled by spikes, set on fire, having their spinal cords ripped out.  And it was happening in our living room.  Even if you were from a family with a computer, Wolfenstein came out the same year as Mortal Kombat.  Doom came out in 1993.  Sure, some PC games had covered serious subjects like rape and brutal violence before, but few games were as accessible to enterprising kids as this holy trinity of gore.

Certainly, by today’s standards, Mortal Kombat is pretty tame.  After playing games like Soldier of Fortune where each body part has a number of articulation points for having limbs sawn off, it almost seems as cartoony as those older games.  Fallout 3 had hilarious limbular explosions in HD slow-motion!  But Mortal Kombat was likely one of the first games that you or someone you know wasn’t allowed to play.  It was a precursor to the congressman-based fervor of Grand Theft Auto.  It played a leading role in the eventual development of the ESRB.  Sure, a lot of parents ignore ESRB ratings even today, but they cried out for a rating system in the first place largely thanks to kids bringing Mortal Kombat home.

It’s other “legacy” is the more dubious one of ridiculous announcers.  Fatality, Babality, Finish Him, Toasty… they all lead to the Headshot, Multikill, Double Kill, Running Riot, Killamanjaro, and Unstoppables of today.  I could actually do without these though, so thanks Mortal Kombat.

mk03
Gender roles, you guys.

So yeah, it’s a shitty fighting game, but it might very well have changed the landscape of gaming as we know it.  That’s pretty neat.  And with the demise of Midway and the sale of the Mortal Kombat IP to Warner Brothers, I’m not sure we’ll see a return of the shock-value tuned, mediocre experience that so defined the series.  Who knows, someone make even take the initiative to turn it into something worth playing again.

Mickey Mania: The Timeless Adventures of Mickey Mouse

First Contact
No, Mickey! You'll unravel the very fabric of the space-time continuum!

Mickey Mania was a neat little game – fluid animation, confident visual presentation, clever little set-pieces – until someone put a goddamn mine cart level in the second stage.  I fucking hate mine cart levels, almost as much as I hate escort missions (maybe more, I can’t decide).  They’re a crime against platforming, and they should be blacked from the game developer’s palette.  Usually you won’t see one until the latter third of the game, when the level designers have run out of ideas (see Taz Mania, Donkey Kong Country); not so with Mickey Mania.  They’re* even clever enough to disguise the mine cart level as a ride through the Mad Doctor’s lab on a Frankensteinian operating table – but a lacquered turd is still a turd.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
A mine cart level by any other name...

They’re* still throwing out interesting puzzles well after that, albeit executing them in the most annoying way possible.  Mostly by sending wave after wave of respawned enemies at you while you’re trying to solve them.  The enemies are more trouble than they’re worth.  Take the skeletons for instance: some take one bean-shot to kill, some take three despite no apparent visual difference, all explode in a flurry of bouncing bones that continue to maim you from beyond the grave.  You’re better off just jumping over them so you only have one or two pieces of enemy to contend with (they throw their skulls).

[* ‘They’ of course refers to game designers Travellers Tales and Sony Imagesoft, which, most interestingly, included the likes of David Jaffe,  the very vocal director of the God of War games.  Later tonight he will post a video blog from his garage rebutting the many valid points of this article.]

It’s at this point I remember this was probably supposed to be a kid’s game.  Why is it that every single Disney game is far too difficult for its target audience?  Ducktales, Land of Illusion, Aladdin, The Lion King – I could go on forever – each one, though pretty enough to check all those graphics/presentation/sound/music boxes for gaming mag reviews, is the gameplay equivalent of torture.  Child torture.  And last time I checked, that’s against the law, people.

You wanna talk about torture?  Torture is having LOAD TIMES on a cartridge game.  It’s just wrong on so many levels.

'Timeless Adventure' alright!

Let’s go back to mine cart levels, why I hate them with a seething, white hot rage, and why this one in particular has raised my ire.  We’ve just become acquainted with with the titular character, his controls, how he handles, only to have that control unceremoniously snatched from us, helplessly hurtling (and hopping) towards all manner of deadly fates.  Passing the level then becomes an exercise in rote memorisation, and of course, abject frustration.  It’s nowhere near as soul-crushing as that most infamous of mine cart levels – the hoverbike-ride through the Wind Tunnels of Battletoads – but after save/load stating my way through the level, I found that the only way I could make the final jump was to purposely run into the final obstacle.  Who in their right mind’s going to think of something like that?  A child?  A ‘hardcore gamer’?  I know, I’ll just run into that thing that was killing me during the first three-quarters of the level!  On purpose!

Oh, and another thing: what’s with Mickey’s bean-shot?  What’s to prevent him from throwing magic beans anywhere other than directly left or right in a straight line?  I’ve seen platformers and side-scrolling shoot-em-ups get it on before, but Mickey Mania is an experience akin to playing Space Invaders sideways with an abacus.  That’s about the closest I can come to illustrating what a royal pain in the arse it is for a gravity-laden Mickey to shoot rogue bats on the y-axis.  He *can* jump on *some* enemies *some*times, but like all non-Sonic, non-Mario platformers, it fails to distinguish just where, when, and how that will succeed.

It’s a pretty enough cartoon to be sure, but controls maketh the videogame, and – I’m sorry to say – Mickey don’t got it.

Now somebody give me a medal for not mentioning Epic Mickey a single time during the course of this write-up.

Oh.