Category: video games


Every game in Nintendo’s long-running Legend of Zelda series has essentially the same story, but each one puts a unique spin on the world of Hyrule, adding another layer of depth and richness as the player discovers how the familiar elements come into play.

The latest installment, Breath of the Wild for the Nintendo Switch system, is the most immersive telling of the legend yet. It reminds me the most of my previous favorite in the series, Windwaker, because of its huge world and beautiful cel-shaded graphics.

But while Windwaker used the vastness of the ocean to achieve its large feel, Breath of the Wild has a landscape made up of widely varying climates, absolutely packed with detail. For people who want to get on with the story, it provides a “fast travel” option that allows the hero Link to teleport to places he’s already discovered, but I haven’t used that, preferring to cross country on foot or on horseback and enjoy the sights and experiences I come across along the way.

One of my favorite elements of the game is that it gives you a camera you can use to capture amazing scenery or important information you want to remember. There are dozens of animals in the game, each with its own habitat, behavior, and sound effects programmed in, and as you photograph each species, the game gives you an entry in Link’s “Hyrule Compendium” about the animal. (You can do the same for plants, enemies, and weapons, giving you a total of a few hundred objects to try to capture in photographs.)

My girlfriend Megan is a real-life birdwatcher— she has submitted reports of the birds she’s observed. That gave me the idea of submitting my own virtual birdwatching report on the birds of Hyrule. It’s taken a while, but I’ve finally gotten a photo of each bird in the game.

Sparrows come in six varieties, and I was impressed to find that they differ not just in color but also in behavior.

blue_sparrowBlue sparrows are the easiest variety to find. They prefer temperate zones near mountains, which is the climate of at least half of Hyrule. They are also fairly laid-back, cheery little birds that like to find streams and puddles to bathe in, so you can usually find them just by walking down a road near a brook, especially if it’s raining. Just walk quietly, or stand still, and one may come hopping right up to you to give you a questioning look.

golden_sparrowGolden sparrows live on the outskirts of the Eldin region, which is a volcanic mountain range with the live Death Mountain volcano at its center (where nothing lives except monsters). According to the Hyrule Compendium, their down is resistant to burning, and they eat small insects that hide between the rocks. You can tell when they are nearby when you hear their high-pitched chirping. In other parts of Hyrule, the chirping could be coming from invisible birds in the trees, but in the Eldin region there are no trees.

sand_sparrowSand sparrows are a beautiful reddish-brown color, which helps to camouflage them in the Gerudo Desert. They can be a real challenge to get close to, because it’s hard to move quickly and softly in the desert sand. Link might have to find special Sand Boots to allow him to sneak up on one. There are a lot of dangers in the desert, so these birds can be quite skittish.

red_sparrowRed sparrows are actually a very pale pink. I have only seen them in the vicinity of the Rito Village in northern Hyrule (which, oddly enough, is a village of bird-people). They don’t seem to go up into the frigid mountains surrounding the village, instead scrounging for wild plants and nuts in the foothills.

rainbow_sparrowRainbow sparrows live in the Faron region of Hyrule, which is a bit like a mixture between a swamp and a rainforest. Despite their bold plumage, they seem fairly shy. I could only reliably find them on a certain bridge early in the morning before road traffic scared them away. (That’s why the light in the photo is so dim; it would have been nice to get a picture in full sunlight so that the colors would be more brilliant.)

common_sparrowThe “common” sparrow was the bird I spent the longest time trying to get a photo of! Common they may be, but they are also very easily scared. Their pretty green plumage makes them hard to spot when they are hiding in the grass, too. I can’t count how many times I was sneaking up on the sound of chirping only to hear the flutter of wings and then silence. Even when I had Link wearing stealth gear and using an elixir of stealth, there were any number of things beyond his control that would scare the sparrows away– like a monster suddenly rising up out of the ground, or dropping out of a tree, or another animal blundering through, or even an assassin suddenly appearing to kill Link. (I can just hear Link now, drawing his sword and yelling “YOU SCARED THE BIRDS AWAY!”)

Next are the four varieties of pigeons (or doves) native to Hyrule…

Continue reading

Advertisements

This post contains spoilers for the plot of the computer game To the Moon.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, play or watch the game!  Otherwise, keep reading.  This post looks a bit more at one of the game’s most interesting characters, River.  (“River” is a popular name in sci-fi, isn’t it?  You also have Firefly‘s River Tam and Doctor Who‘s River Song, both of whom are also very interesting people.)

Continue reading

To the Moon screenshotThanks for reading my introductory post about the computer game To the Moon!  This post will start to get into the details of the plot in earnest, so only continue reading if you don’t mind finding out what happens in the game.

My girlfriend Megan has already written over a dozen posts reflecting on her reactions to the game and how it relates to Asperger’s syndrome, and they are really neat!  Her posts are a lot less spoilerish than mine, so you can check them out if you want to learn more about the themes of the game without being spoiled about the details of the plot.

Megan seems to have less trouble expressing her thoughts in words than I do; I usually have to have all of the details laid out in front of me before I feel like I can say anything.  With that in mind, the spoilers begin below…

Continue reading

I recently watched a playthrough of the computer game To the Moon, which I knew nothing about except that it was independently made and that a lot of people were impressed by the depth of its storytelling.  I found it to be a gripping story that managed to use the genre of a video game to draw the player into a tale that was both tragic and beautiful at the same time, while giving the player a lot to think about.

To the Moon screenshotI really can’t talk about how the game does this without giving the story away, so if you want to experience it the way I did, you can download it for Windows computers at http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ for $10.  Or, you can look for a playthrough of the game on YouTube, preferably one without anyone talking over the game, such as this one.  I was so impressed by the playthrough that I bought a copy of the game to play myself.

There’s actually enough to talk about in To the Moon for a whole series of posts, and I’m afraid I will need to reveal most of the story in order to talk about it.  So I’ll just start with this post for now, and include the following spoiler warning:

If you are the type of person who wants no spoilers at all, then I’m afraid you have to stop reading here and play the game!  Be prepared for tears, though– it’s an emotional story.

Continue reading

Happy new year, readers!

It’s been a while since my last post.  There’s actually a lot of new and awesome things to tell you about since then!  But more on that later, hopefully.  This is a post that I’ve had partly written for a while and finally got done.  (Warning:  this is a really nerdy post about video games.  If you’re not a video game nerd like me, it might totally bore you.)  😉

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I really enjoy video games– especially games from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the familiar ones I grew up with.  (In general, new video games began to lose me when they shifted to 3D, and lost me almost altogether when the Nintendo Wii made control a matter of physical rather than mental coordination.  My cousins think I’m terrible at video games because I can never beat them, but I’d like to see them try to beat me at the original Super Mario Kart!)

The Internet has allowed people to share the things that interest them in all kinds of ways, and classic video games are no exception.  It’s amazing how much diversity and subclassification there can be within a seemingly narrow area of interest.

For instance, you can find a lot of videos on YouTube of recorded video game footage.  Making a recording of a console game like the NES (Nintendo) used to require two VCRs and more cables than most kids could find around the house.  Today, though, a lot of people play a copy of the game, record it, capture commentary or reactions, and upload it to the Internet using just one computer.

The video game recording itself has a lot of subgenres.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the “Let’s play,” the longplay, the glitchfest, and a particular favorite of mine, the speed run.

A speed run is an attempt to complete a video game as quickly as possible.  You can probably find a speed run for just about any game you can think of by searching YouTube for the game title and “speed run.”

The question then is what kind of speed run you are interested in!  There are two very different approaches to what seems on its face to be a simple concept: human and tool-assisted speed runs, and each has its own community of devoted gamers.  And believe it or not, the difference is as big as the difference between sports and art.
Continue reading

Just a silly random observation, and also a test of my ability to write one of these posts mostly using my cell phone.

Dr. Mario is a puzzle game for the original Nintendo console, a little like Tetris.  It makes it onto my list of favorite video games, though it’s probably rated even higher by my parents, who had a lot of fun playing each other in it after my brothers and I were in bed.  🙂

The original game had only two tunes to use as background music.

Here’s one of them, “Fever.”

I recently realized that this music sounds a lot like the song “Lady Madonna” by the Beatles!  The two tunes are different enough that it’s not an exact copy, but I think the inspiration had to be there.

See for yourself.

(Incidentally, I am not the first person ever to notice this.  A YouTube commenter on the Dr. Mario recording points out the same similarity.)

A lot of video games are patterned after movies, with voice acting, cutscenes, and creative use of camera angles.  The goal is to make players feel as if they are controlling the events of the scene they are watching, or even to imagine themselves as a character within the game’s world.  One of the things I love about old video games is that the best of them accomplish this in creative ways, even in a very limited medium.

One of the oldest games on my top 80 list is Air Fortress for the original Nintendo.  The concept is simple, but it combines two different video game “genres” in a clever way and uses music to tell a suspenseful story.

The first thing you’ll see in the video is the poorly translated story of the planet FARMEL, which was having the GLORIEST DAYS before it was attacked by these mysterious AIR FORTRESSES.  In a plot development that gets used more often than you’d think in video games, the leaders decide that because this mission is so dangerous, the best course of action is to send one person to take on the fleet by himself.

That man is the intrepid HAL BAILMAN with his LIGHTBRASNER.  (Based on another version of the game with a better translation, they meant to say “LIGHT-BLASTER.”)

I love those cheesy stories for old video games– they can be hilarious!  Needless to say, this game does its best storytelling without using words.

There are eight levels in the game, one for each Air Fortress in the fleet.  The video shows you level 1, and believe me– the makers of the game were being kind to the player in this level.  Later levels get more difficult very quickly.  I don’t remember if I even made it halfway through this game back when I used to rent it as a kid.

Every level has three basic parts:

1. Approaching the Air Fortress by rocket sled.  This part of the game is a side-scrolling shooter, like Gradius, Defender, and other classic arcade games.  The screen scrolls by itself, and you have to pilot the sled to avoid the walls of the fortress and the enemies that fly around and try to shoot you down.  If you collide with any of these things, your rocket sled is destroyed, and you only have three of them.  It’s crucial at this stage to pick up the energy (E) and bomb (B) power-ups for you to use in the next section.

2. Inside the Air Fortress on foot.  Here, the game turns into more of a standard platforming game, in which you can explore in any direction.  The goal is to find the main power reactor of the Air Fortress and destroy it.  I like the way the energy meter doubles as fuel for your rocket boots in this part of the game.  This means that you have to be careful about how much you use the boots, because draining your energy puts you at more risk of being destroyed by an enemy.  It also places a limit on the amount of flying you can do; if you run low on energy, you will need to stay on the ground for a while as your energy recharges.

3. The escape.  This is where the game really draws you in to the story.  When you destroy the main power reactor, the whole fortress goes dark and quiet, unsettling music begins to play.  The Air Fortress is going to explode in a few minutes, and you need to find your rocket sled and escape before it does!  In the first level, the game designers were feeling generous, so they put the exit right behind the reactor.  But in most of the levels, you have to go searching for it.  You might pass the exit on your way in to the reactor, or it might be in a part of the fortress you haven’t seen yet.

The game doesn’t give you a timer, so you can’t know for sure how much time you have to find the exit. After a while, you start to hear a low rumble and the screen begins to shake.  The shaking gets gradually more severe and the rumble grows louder until it almost drowns out the music.  The screen begins to flash white just before the end until the entire screen is washed out, and — GAME OVER.

The game is great at building tension, and it’s here that you reap the benefits of collecting (E) capsules during the rocket sled section– the more energy you have, the more you can use your rocket boots to hurry through the air fortress.

 

Continue reading

Video games for the weekend

When I was a kid, I lived just outside a small Pennsylvania borough called Danville.  (I just realized that I can’t officially call it a “town,” because nearby Bloomsburg always claimed to be “the only town in Pennsylvania.”)  It was a great place to live!

It seems we are all shaped by the times and places we remember while growing up, to the point that some of them become almost synonymous with childhood.  One of the things that was like that for me was a store in downtown Danville called McWilliams.

Mill Street in downtown Danville. If you walk a few blocks down the road, McWilliams will be on your left.

McWilliams was an eclectic combination of different things that seems a bit odd now.  At ground level, part of it was a drug store, while the rest of it was more of a bookstore (but a very small one).  But the best part was downstairs in the basement– the movie and video game rental section.  The walls were lined with empty videotape and game boxes, and if you brought one to the counter upstairs, they would give you the movie or game (along with instruction book) in a clear plastic container. I think the cost of a rental went from $0.99 to $1.99 during the time I lived in Danville.

The best occasions came at the end of a semester or year in school.  If you brought your report card and had good grades (I think it had to be B’s or better), you could rent a game for free.  My brothers and I would each pick out a game, and we’d have a fun weekend trying to beat them.

That’s how I first discovered a great many of the NES games on my list of favorites.  When I got older and started collecting games for myself, I was surprised to discover that at least one of the games they had was actually quite rare, and it had been a neat privilege to be able to play it whenever I wanted.

That sort of memory is very time- and place-specific.  I’m not all that old yet, but my memories of renting games at McWilliams already belong to another generation.  As far as I know, small stores eventually got out of the video and game rental business because of chains like Blockbuster– and then those stores went bankrupt because of all of the other options people have for seeing movies thanks to the Internet.  (McWilliams is still there, by the way, but I’d be surprised if it still rents movies and games.)

It’s not worse the way it is now; it’s just different, and it somehow makes my memories of trips to McWilliams more special to realize that it couldn’t happen that way today.  At the time, though, it seemed like the most normal thing in the world.

I don’t know if this sort of memory ends up being boring to share; it might be if your experiences aren’t similar.  What memories of childhood are uniquely part of you because of where you lived?

The most important quality for a video game to have is for it to be fun.  But can it also be beautiful?

Maybe it’s just an effect of being from a generation raised with video games, but I think a good video game can be a work of art.  One of the video games that really impressed me the first time I played it (15 years ago!) was Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo.

The game was made by a British company called Rare, and while it’s probably their most famous game, it’s far from the only game of theirs to make it onto my favorite games list thanks to its creativity.

In DKC, you play as Nintendo’s famous gorilla, Donkey Kong, and his chimp friend, Diddy, as they try to get Kong’s banana collection back from King K. Rool and his band of crocodile pirates.

Hey!  I didn’t say the story was a work of art!

The big innovation in this game came in its graphics.  All of the characters, enemies, and objects in Donkey Kong Country were initially rendered in 3-D on a computer before being converted to 2-D animations (called “sprites”) for the game.

The result was that the graphics looked much more detailed than would have been possible with the Super Nintendo alone.  (If I keep doing this list long enough, I’ll eventually get to some examples of what 3-D graphics generated by the Super Nintendo look like.  Donkey Kong Country went far beyond these limitations by creating the illusion of 3-D graphics.)

So the graphics were innovative for their time, but what I really enjoy about the game is the way that the graphics and the sound work together to create atmosphere. The levels in DKC take place in a wide variety of settings, including jungles, caves, ancient temples, evergreen forests, and factories.  Every setting has its own musical theme that gives it a certain mood.

My favorite is used in a mountain level where it gradually begins to snow more and more the further you go, until you’re in the middle of a blizzard:

The whole level makes for a neat artistic effect.   The music from that level is one of the tunes I think of when I watch the snow fall.

The game does some other subtle things to make the settings seem more immersive.  The various indicators so common to video games (like the banana counter) only appear on the screen for a moment and then disappear, leaving the screen without any clutter at all most of the time.  And many of the sound effects seem to be designed to blend with the music rather than clashing with it.

For example, the sound effect made by the clam enemies in the underwater levels almost sounds like it’s a percussion instrument playing along with the music:

Isn’t the underwater music relaxing?  The first time my brother played this level, he was distracted by the rich background and didn’t realize that the first fish in the level was an enemy, so he ended up swimming right into it!

But anyway, that’s why Donkey Kong Country is my 21st-favorite game!

———-

By the way, chances are good that if you are much younger than me, then you are thinking “What is he talking about?  The graphics and music in that game are terrible!”  I can only say that they were very impressive for their time.

There’s a character in Donkey Kong Country that pokes fun at video game nostalgia like mine.  Donkey Kong’s grandfather, Cranky, shows up in the game to give you hints about where to find secrets.  But not without ranting about how easy you have it these days with your fancy graphics and 3-D animation.  Cranky remembers the good old days of arcade gaming when games were actually hard, and you had to get by with 4 frames of animation!  So it was inevitable that one day even Donkey Kong Country would look dated, and I’d end up ranting just like Cranky.  🙂

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned a couple of games that are near the top and middle of my all-time ranking, but what sort of game is just barely good enough to make it onto my list of 80 favorites?  I’m glad you asked!

The answer is A Boy and His Blob for the original Nintendo, which is at the same time one of the most creative games ever and one of the most poorly made.  The hero in this game is the eponymous unnamed boy, who happens to have a pet blob from another planet.

The pudgy, white blob (named “Blobert”) follows the boy around everywhere, either out of loyalty or because the boy keeps feeding him jellybeans.  He loves jellybeans (unless they are ketchup flavored, and really, who can blame him for that?).

Each flavor of jellybean causes the blob to transform into a different object, which introduces the puzzle aspect of the game.  For example, a licorice jellybean will turn the blob into a ladder, a punch-flavored jellybean will turn him into a hole in the ground (punch a hole; get it?), and a cola jellybean will turn him into a giant bubble.  There are about 15 flavors of jellybeans in all, which is a good thing, because the boy is pretty useless on his own.  He can’t even jump.

What little story exists in the game goes like this:  You need to search the caverns underneath New York City for treasure, which you can then use to buy vitamins at the store.  Then, you can turn the blob into a rocket and travel to his home planet of Blobolonia, which for some reason is overrun by candy-based enemies.  (Hence the need for vitamins, I guess?  The game’s overall position on the “healthy vs. unhealthy” food debate seems a bit murky, since jellybeans, peppermints, and vitamins help you, while marshmallows, cherries, and popcorn kill you.  Besides that, everything makes perfect sense, of course.)

Here’s a sample of the gameplay:

There are some things to like about the game.  The puzzle aspect can be a lot of fun.  Also, it’s cute the way the blob follows you when you whistle.  Especially funny is how the blob’s smile instantly turns into a frown if you throw a jellybean that he can’t catch.  I also like how the game plays little musical stings sometimes when the blob transforms.  (On the other hand, the entire game uses basically the same tune with just a little variation once you reach the blob’s planet.)

But you don’t have to play the game long to realize its flaws.  When confronted with enemies, the boy’s only options are to run past them or die.  Deciding where to punch a hole is a process of trial and error, since there’s no way to know how long a drop there will be aside from painful experience in prior lives.  And it’s way too hard to control that bubble underwater!

Continue reading