03 October 2010

Sega Rally: Arcade Perfect.

Celica on Desert

Back in the 32-Bit era, arcade perfection was the Holy Grail of game development. It was the question on everybody's lips: "yeah yeah yeah, that's great, but tell me - is it arcade perfect?" It's a strange term looking back, now that consoles have spread their wings and arcades the world over die a slow and painful death, but 'arcade perfect' was once the highest praise you could lavish on a home conversion. I'd say we've come a long way since then, but by demanding more than mere perfection (and getting it), we've eroded away the canal that birthed games like Sega Rally. Sega Rally Championship for the Sega Saturn is arcade perfect. But it's more than that - it's just plain perfect. Some may find this hard to believe approaching it retrospectively - sure, polygon counts and texture maps have improved since then - but mark my words, no rally game since has even touched its handling or track design.
Lancia Stratos on Lakeside
Sega Rally is the poster child for "quality over quantity", sporting only three tracks (Desert, Forest, Mountain - four if you include the secret Lakeside track) and two vehicles (a sixth generation Toyota Celica, and a Lancia Delta HF Integrale - three if you include the secret Lancia Stratos). The Desert track is the shortest and simplest of the three, giving the player a taste of turns to come, and offering insights into the very different but equally viable behaviours of its two main characters: the long-horned Celica that throws its weight into corners and gains on straights, and the tight-turning Tom Thumb wonder that is the Delta. And yet the Desert has a flavour all its own, of salient jumps and short, sharp chicanes. The Forest track is all business until it reaches its centrepiece, the hairpin right, putting you through the ringer all the way to the checkered flag. And the Mountain track is as wild as a bucking bronco, offering very little reprieve for the unfocused rider.
Delta on Mountain

Today's game players would baulk at such a limited selection, but I defy them to find three more expertly crafted tracks in any rally game (or indeed, any racing game), or two cars to race on them that ever felt this right. This is not nostalgia talking here - this is the same Sega Rally that kept my housemate and I up nights last week. It's a rare treat to have two equally matched Sega Rally players under the same roof, but that is what we have at my house. The thrill of waiting for your opponent to slip, and power-sliding past him to the finish line; the satisfaction of licking the wall on a perfectly executed hairpin turn; the friction of tyres to asphalt, to gravel, to mud; the superbly balanced handling; these are sensations I could never adequately describe or replicate.
Delta on Forest

So here's to you, Sega Rally, King of Rally Racing. Don't ever change.

02 October 2010

Toejam & Earl: Random Acts of Kindness, Part 2.

I was talking with a friend before a wedding last week, which somehow led to a discussion of 'True Random', and how it could not be replicated outside of the natural world (e.g. by a computer). My friend asked me for an example of 'True Random' in the natural world, and the best I could do at the time was the branch growth patterns of a tree, which I'm sure is a popular example in physics classes, but not one that I was entirely satisfied with. Then during the wedding, something amazing happened. The flower girl came swinging through the wedding ceremony like a wrecking ball. She can't have been older than four years old, but she stole the show because nobody knew what she was going to do next. I pointed her out to my friend (not that I needed to - everyone was looking at her), and said "that, my friend, is True Random". She smiled and nodded in agreement. (protip: don't ever get a flower girl for your wedding - at least not one that is under 6 years old with ADD - I have never seen this go well.)

The Earthlings in Toejam & Earl are no different.

Toejam & Earl

3. Earthlings
When a Cupid fires an arrow at Toejam or Earl, they fall under a lovestruck stupor, and their D-pad directional controls are immediately jumbled (up becomes down, and down, up; or up is left and down is right - all manner of configurations are possible). Your controls remain in a state of disarray until the love spell wears off, so it's important to adjust quickly and get the hell out of there - each additional hit from Cupid's arrow not only refreshes the spell, but re-jumbles the controls as well. It's not until recently that I've realised this is a 'status effect' just like those found in RPGs (and of course, Roguelikes), albeit presented in a far more dynamic and tactile way.

Santa Claus is a similarly fictitious and random Earthling. You can never really tell when or where he'll make his next appearance. He seems to be attracted to levels with large expanses of water, but even that's not a hard and fast condition for a visit from this reluctant helper. I say 'reluctant' because he will only bequeath presents to those savvy enough to sneak up on him.
As an aside, Toejam and Earl can sneak up on sleeping enemies (and Santa Claus) by holding down the action button. This is the default function of the action button, which I think is a great idea, and as a Sonic fan, I believe this should be implemented in most platformers. [One of the few frustrations I have with the Mario titles is having to hold down the 'run' button for the duration of entire games. It should be replaced with a 'walk' button, and Mario should run by default.] Back to sneaking: occasionally - perhaps once or twice during the course of an entire game - Toejam or Earl will let out an almighty sneeze, blowing their cover and waking up a sleeping Earthling (or alerting a rummaging Santa). If a second player is present, he will say "gesundheit", which is a nice touch to this well-loved cartoon trope. Similarly, Earl's pants fall down (much to his embarrassment) at random junctures, which never seems to get old. It's these spontaneous events that really contribute to this sense of a living, breathing world filled with living, breathing characters.
When it comes to sneaking up on Santa, there is an added requirement for stealth success. The player has to sneak while he's rummaging in his sack, and stand dead still whenever he stops to look around. If the player manages to touch him when he's not looking, Santa drops an undetermined number of presents. If the player's spotted, Santa flies away in his jet pack to another random spot on the map. Both outcomes have an element of randomness.

There are Earthlings that likewise sneak up on Toejam and Earl, like Boogie Man for instance, but a far more compelling example of this can be found in the Mailbox Monster. Now, you'll likely encounter many a mailbox during the course of a game, but if you're anything like me, you'll damn near avoid the buggers every time. Walking past a mailbox is like waiting for the axe to fall, because the possibility of it being a Mailbox Monster is always looming. There's only two ways to find out if a mailbox is bonafide. Either you'll stand next to it, in which case it will offer a mail order (mailbox) or enter its frantic dance of death (Mailbox Monster). If you're lucky, you might catch an imposter shifting its eyes from side to side, and avoid such trial and error terror. The Mailbox Monster moves with existential panic, as if it's somehow shocked to be a monster, and that's what makes it dangerous.

There's only one 'Earthling' more erratic in its movements, and that's the Tornado. They can spring up from anywhere in the desert areas, but you can bet your bottom dollar - they're heading straight for you. It's nigh-on impossible to predict where a Tornado may take you once it's swept you off your feet, but its strong sense of sentient ill-will tells you it won't be anywhere good.

Toejam & Earl

4. Geography
Which brings me to geography. The Earth, according to Toejam & Earl, is flat, perhaps as a comment on the backward savagery of its denizens. Each level of 'Earth' as it were, is a series of islands large and small suspended in space. This means there is an edge to every level, and Toejam and Earl can fall off, either through clumsiness (walking lovestruck in the wrong direction), item expiry (running out of Icarus Wings in flight), or enemy interference (the aforementioned Tornado drop). And when you do fall, you could land anywhere on the previous level. You could even land on a remote 1 x 1 square island, necessitating further falling until you can actually reach an elevator.
Or you can do what my brother and I do, and that's fall right back down to Level 1 so that we can visit the secret Level 0. I won't spoil things by telling you how to get there, but I will tell you that once you fall off Level 0 you return to the furthest level you originally fell from to get there.
However random it is, you do get a sense of the game's geography after multiple playthroughs. Quite often a secluded island can only join the mainland by revealing secret corridors, which are 'triggered' by surveying the coastline. In a puff of smoke, and the buzz of a sawmill, the corridor paves itself and winds its way across the void. Pursuing the new path often yields further revelations until it links with another body of land or intertwines with other corridors; other times it yields nothing and leads nowhere: random for the sake of random.

You can also reveal remote sections of the map at random by picking up a telephone, which - you guessed it - appear at random.

Toejam and Earl

5. Conversation
Speaking of telephones, or speaking of speaking, the conversation in Toejam & Earl also adds to its overall spontaneity. In a two-player game (yet another reason I espouse the superiority of the two-player TJ&E experience), the titular characters discuss all manner of things between levels, from the insanity of Earth's inhabitants to the awesomeness of their progress, to the origin of the smell in the elevator [hint: it was Earl]. While there are only so many conversations to be had between the two, you'll never hear the same conversation twice, nor will you hear them in the same order. There are other conversations to be had in-game, either in response to stimulus material ("aloha/hubba hubba" in the thrall of a Hula Girl, for instance), or to greet each other upon re-uniting.

And sure, sometimes it's hilarious, other times it's dated, but all of the time it contributes to the anything-can-happen-and-will thrill of this strange little game called Toejam & Earl.

22 September 2010

Toejam & Earl: Random Acts of Kindness, Part 1.

There's only one videogame that every member of my family has played, and continues to play after 18 years:

My brother comes home from Japan (the Land of Videogames) after working there a year, and what's the first thing he wants to do? Play Toejam & Earl with me. So we play Toejam & Earl, and we still love it. And for good reason: its funk soundtrack is, in this writer's humble opinion, the greatest to ever be committed to cartridge. Its cartoon stylings capture perfectly the dissonance between our duo of chillaxed aliens stranded on a frenetic, hostile Planet Earth. It was both an hilarious parody of hip hop culture and a devilishly clever satire on modern Earth life. In an age when local multiplayer is treated as indulgence, and cooperative play a fiscal liability, Toejam & Earl represents one of the most delightful experiences that can be shared with two controllers. All of these things comprise the funny, funky package that is Toejam & Earl, but they are not reason enough for its remarkable longevity. There are many other titles that could be said to be "the full package" and yet I can almost guarantee I won't be playing them in 18 years time. Those who have played Toejam & Earl will find all this talk of packages to be rather apt. The game is every bit as surprising as the wrapped gifts that feature so prominently in it. If I could summarise the essence and appeal of Toejam & Earl in a single word, that word would be 'Random'. No two play-throughs of Toejam & Earl are ever the same, lending the game virtually limitless replay value. Let's explore this Funkotronian phenomenon to see how it achieves this rare feat.
1. Random World The game begins with a choice of either 'Play New Game -- Fixed World', 'Jam Out', or 'Play New Game -- Random World'. Now, the Fixed World features set levels that will always be the same geographically, with set locations for ship pieces [your goal is to reconstruct your broken rocketship, the parts of which are scattered throughout the game] and elevators [the end of each level]. Just about everything that populates them remains random, but it's good if you're strapped for time and you need a ball-park game length. Random World is a huge part of the game's appeal. This is the mode that seasoned players return to time and time again, because the experience is always different. It's always different anyway, for reasons I will go into later, but the geography is never the same. Sure, it follows guidelines - for instance, Mailbox Monsters are not introduced until Level 4, quicksand will only enter the game's repertoire by Level 6, and Level 13 is invariably a warzone packed with tomato-firing chickens with mortars - but it's not a random selection of pre-drawn levels; each level is randomly generated; each Earthling, item, and elevator randomly placed; and each ship piece randomly scattered throughout the game. This is why it is often referred to as a 'Roguelike' - a reference to the dungeon-crawler Rogue which popularised the use of randomly-generated levels and items - despite its distinct lack of dungeons or crawling. But you'll soon see how Toejam & Earl takes this formula even further. Anyway, with circumnavigation playing such a major role in the game, it's easy to see how much an ever-changing landscape can add to its replay value. 'Jam Out' has got to be one of the world's first music rhythm games. It essentially showcases the game's excellent jazz-funk/hip hop soundtrack, allowing you to play beats or in-game sound effects over the top with both controllers. This mode comes in both 'Fixed' and 'Random' flavours also, assigning either preset beats to each button in the former, or allowing the player to switch between randomly-assigned sound effects from the game in the latter, often to hilarious results.

2. Presents For all its apparent hellishness, planet Earth seemingly has a lot to give as well. There are myriad presents scattered about each level, and these gift-wrapped wonders are the cornerstone of the game's evergreen appeal. Each present is a veritable Pandora's Box, with the curiosity/caution-inspiring '????????' beside each one in your inventory. That is, until you open one, and all other presents that share its appearance are now known to contain that particular item. A small, red box with a yellow bow could be a pair of spring shoes in one game, or rocket skates in another. A large, pink box with white polka dots could be five bucks, or it could just as well be a nasty bout of tomato rain. As long as they remain unopened, they have the equal capacity to be something awesome, something utterly life-threatening, or something downright useless in certain situations. Some presents remain random even when their contents are known. 'Food' could be something tasty that increases your life-bar, or something awful that diminishes it. With two players together, the 'food' present can be beneficial to one while harmful to the other, and so forth. The 'Earthling' present could yield a helpful Viking lady or a swarm of killer bees. The 'doorway' present reveals a mystery door that when walked through, transports the player to a random place on the map. If both players are present, that same doorway will lead to two completely different locations. Presents with question mark ['?'] wrapping are other presents in disguise; random within random. This process of discovery can be immensely satisfying, but each present opened brings you one step closer to accidentally opening the dreaded 'Randomizer', which re-shuffles the appearance and contents of every single present in your possession, and in the game. Of course, you could be lumbered with a swag of undesirable items, in which case another spin of the roulette wheel may not be such a bad thing. It's just one of the many ways that TJ&E continually changes itself up, even mid-game.

26 May 2010

Monkeying Around: A Monkey Kong Review.

Developed by Mike Meyer for the PC.

Monkey Kong is a platformer endearing in its simplicity. The levels, composed entirely out of blocks and girders are intentionally reminiscent of Donkey Kong, as is the game’s protagonist primate. Monkey Kong’s mission is not dissimilar from that of many monkeys: to get the bananas. There is no player death – no deathtraps, enemies, or rolling barrels to navigate – and that’s kind of the point. As game creator Mike Meyer states on his website, “there’s no winning or losing, just platforming around.” Everything about the game speaks to this playfulness of ‘monkeying around’, from its impressive 8-Bit rendition of Tenacious D’s “Tribute”, to the comical backflip that is so integral to the monkey’s move set. And while we’re on the subject, Monkey’s controls feel just right: not too slippery, and not too tight. The screen is presented in the window of an arcade cabinet, contextualising the game as a quick, good time. And it is: there are only a handful of levels to get through at random, and once you’ve nailed the backflip mechanic it’s smooth sailing. After all, the game was developed within a very short time frame for a competition, and is presented more as an idea of platforming than anything else. And on that level, it succeeds. Given its subject matter, Monkey Kong is a surprisingly elegant platformer. You could do far worse with your lunch hour.

 (out of four)

Click here to play Monkey Kong.

"Cloverfield is grassroots Godzilla."

Written by Drew Goddard, directed by Matt Reeves.

Cloverfield is grassroots Godzilla – a monster movie utterly determined to preserve its human perspective on disaster. The film achieves this chiefly through the use of handycam-style photography, presenting the ’story’ as a Reality-Show-Gone-Wrong as opposed to Epic Disaster Movie. I say ’story’ in inverted commas because it doesn’t feel like something somebody’s made up; rather it feels like something terrible just happens to unfold as someone is making a home video. The entire film is framed in this light – at no point do we see what the character behind the camera does not see - and it is this consistency that makes it seem so authentic.

Cloverfield cleverly opens with a surprise farewell party, and it is at this party that we are able to drink in the characters, their personalities, their relationships, and their motivations. By the time disaster struck, I was already invested in the characters and their drama. In particular, I felt a deep connection to ‘Hud’, the film’s fictional photographer. In many ways, he is the main character – the lens through which we perceive the group’s travails, the voice that guides us through the rubble and trauma – even though he’s the one we see the least. I wondered whether the name ‘Hud’ was an intentional play on the term ‘HUD’ or ‘heads-up display’, given to describe his role as framer and interpreter...

Cloverfield anchors its humanity, firstly through the believable performances of its ensemble cast. Each character faces loss and trauma (physical and mental) in uniquely valid ways. (This is best exemplified when protagonist Rob receives a call from his mother. How do you break the news that someone very close to you has died? What do you say to a friend who has just lost a loved one, when you’ve really got to keep moving just to survive?) And secondly, through Matt Reeves’ stubborn refusal to show the creature in its entirety until the final act. At no point is it allowed to steal the focus – it is an immovable force of nature – only when the beast poses a direct threat to the group do we finally see it in full.

The destruction of Manhattan is earmarked with several powerful moments, the first of which is the severed head of the Statue of Liberty wiping out a city street. How many Hollywood blockbusters has this magnificent structure survived? Even Planet of the Apes spared Lady Liberty! It took someone with the gall to destroy her to instill that tangible sense of hopelessness. From that point on, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Cloverfield was more than just another disaster/monster movie. Without spoiling anything, the most powerful moment comes at the very end, when we catch a glimpse of the video that these events were accidentally taped over (this was alluded to by Rob during the opening party scene, and throughout the ‘recording’ one can see snippets of this video interspliced with the disaster footage) – of a date on Coney Island, no less. It becomes a point of reference for these characters whose journeys we’ve shared – how traumatic events can shape and change people, how they can redefine their relationships.

By focusing on what is real – that is, people and their reactions to personal loss – writer Drew Goddard and director Matt Reeves have crafted a thoroughly believable work of fiction. And though I keep telling myself that all this can be found in a monster movie, I can’t help but disbelieve it.


 (out of four)

20 February 2010

Cream Wolf: Flash-based Fever Dream.

Cream Wolf is a fever dream in Flash form.

Concretely, Cream Wolf is about an ice cream vendor and werewolf who gobbles up his clients by night. It proves to be a strange and interesting premise for a game that is eerily familiar, yet alien and unsettling. Goofy 8-Bit graphics and an off-kilter MIDI ice cream truck music are merely a veneer for this game’s black heart. By contrast, its gameplay systems are surprisingly complex, again throwing player expectations off-guard. Your avatar prowls the suburban streets in his little white van, playing Jack-in-the-box tunes to attract new customers. Collecting cones for speed and supplies, and holding ‘X’ to roll that siren song, the player must avoid other vehicles (because ‘they just wouldn’t understand’) while delivering iced confectionery to sweet-toothed children. Each order triggers a roulette-style mini-game, where the player must craft a specific ice cream creation quickly and accurately for reward. The reward? Fatter, meatier children, more susceptible to “Greensleeves” than ever before. As dusk sets in, your vision blurs, and it’s time to gather up the little blighters before the curse takes hold.

As the fat pre-teens – like rats – marched hypnotically towards my humble abode, an unmistakable wave of feeling washed over me: this is wrong. And then, with a blood-chilling howl, I eviscerated my prey, painting the lawns with the blood of children. Indie developers, take note – it is possible to disturb and entertain at the same time!

Score: (out of four)

Click here to play Cream Wolf.

17 February 2010

In Which I Help Jessica Chobot With Her Bioware-related Relationship Woes.

I really should have written this in time for Valentine's Day, but as you can probably tell, this took me a few days to write.

It's no secret that despite heading up a number of relationship advice columns over the years, IGN's own Jessica Chobot has long struggled with the art of digital courting in Bioware's RPGs. Having played and explored the fullness of several Bioware RPGs, and having courted a few real-life ladies in my time, I believe I can offer Ms. Chobot some help in this regard. Here I will address each roadblock she has encountered with real-world advice that - perhaps contrary to 'popular wisdom' - will also work in a Bioware game.

(Strangely enough, these games are programmed by [mostly] men who have interacted with women in real-life. I know, it's surprising! Presumably, the folks at Bioware also did a lot of research before implementing their romantic subplots.)

DISCLAIMER: While I realise that you, Ms. Chobot, are currently assuming the role of a female Shepard, it appears you are intent on pursuing romantic relationships with the female NPCs. I *could* argue that Shepard, whether male or female in appearance, is most definitely a masculine force for change within Mass Effect's greater narrative, but that is unnecessary and the subject of another blog post entirely. We need only make the observation that in any given relationship, whether it be heterosexual or not, one assumes the masculine pole while the other assumes the feminine opposite (and these can be switched between male and female as well). Ergo, these principles of male and female attraction still apply here - as the pursuer (and hero of the story), Shepard is assuming the masculine role. The gender of the pursuer doesn't even matter, to be truthful - the only condition that matters here is that we are trying to bag you a lady-friend, and so we need only look at how to create that feeling we call 'attraction' in a woman.

Without further adieu, here we go:

Problem 1: "Everyone I try to attempt a relationship with is a frigid b*&^%!"
Unfortunately, any woman you are not already familiar with is likely to put up a cold front. The reason? Women are afraid of strangers, for a start. Psychological studies have shown that women are far less likely to let a stranger inside to make an emergency phone call than men. And fair enough - statistics likely also show that women are most likely to be raped and/or killed by strangers. So the other reason is there's a lot of freaks out there, and a woman doesn't want any old freak coming up to her and talking to her. An attractive woman is likely approached by multiple men on any given day - she doesn't have a whole lot of time on her hands - so this frigid demeanour is her way of sifting the men from the boys.

Solution: Only the Hero May Cross the Threshold.
Yes, it's a cliche straight out of Joseph Campbell, but it's a cliche because it works. Deep down, a woman just wants to be loved, but she doesn't want to give it away to just any old guy: the wall of ice is erected by the woman as a challenge. The hero that breaks through the wall of ice proves himself worthy as a man, and as a lover. The man's unconscious goal in all things, is to penetrate; be that the world, their career, this 'wall of ice', and ultimately, their woman. And I'm not just talking physically. I can tell you right now that even once you snare your lady-love's fair hand, the testing will not stop. EVER. If a man instead allows the world, his job, or his circumstances to instead penetrate him, this will have a flow-on effect to your woman. She will sense it, and the tangible result of that is - believe it or not - excessive nagging and complaining. This is not the woman nagging and complaining about the particular subject or topic she's nagging or complaining to you about - this is her way of asking you, "why aren't you being all that I know you can be? Why are you denying me the fullness of your ferocious love?" Oftentimes, you will need to penetrate your woman's mood, no matter how loudly she protests - she might tell you she's "fine" even though you know she's furious; she might be caught in a self-perpetuating loop of negative thinking - it is your job as a man to face this challenge head on, to stand before the storm and yell "do your worst!" and weather it out. She wants you to charge through her mood on your horse and sweep her off her feet, again and again and again. Unfortunately, a man's first instinct is to retreat to his cave instead, and avoid potential conflict altogether. And guess what? It all begins at the pub/club/supermarche/library/spaceship with her front of frigidity. If you prove you can break through that, you're proving you're the fierce hero and not the cowardly cave-dweller.

But how do you go about it? Well, it's called an 'ice breaker' for a reason - go up and talk to her, silly! And when you talk to her, talk confidently. Not like a jerk, but with a bit of cocky humour. Call her out on her icy disposition, she knows she's doing it, and she won't believe you dared to point it out. The girls at school always, always crush on the boy who pulls their pigtails, not the boring, quiet, nice one (and I should know - I was that boy). Making her feel something, even wrinkled-nose annoyed, is better than being utterly forgettable. This is the part that women often confuse: what women logically want (a nice, sensitive, caring boy) versus what women subliminally want (an exhilarating, unpredictable adventure) and primally need (a strong warrior-man to hunt and kill food, and protect her young). This is where the whole idea of 'cocky and funny' comes from; it provides equal doses of adventure and security that a woman wants and needs. If you lack the confidence of 'cocky', you'll come off as insecure, she'll sense it, and as a result you may even creep her out. THIS IS NOT GOOD. Stand up straight, make proper eye contact, and speak clearly for God's sake. Okay, so you may not be able to control all of these factors in a role-playing game, but you need to grasp these principles, so stay with me here.

To summarise: be challenging, not boring. Be the rugged bad boy, not the goody-two-shoes. Respond to her fronts and jibes with 'cocky and funny' dialogue, and BAM! You have what is commonly known as flirting! Flirting is essential! (Most women, including Chobot, probably already know this.) It takes a bit of effort to melt a woman's icy disposition - it's all part of the test.

Problem 2: "Where does this chick get off telling me that she’s perfect and questioning my authority?"

Solution: Hold Your Ground!
Can you not see that this is the perfect beginning to a flirtateous repartee? She says she's perfect? Well, that's the perfect opportunity for a little teasing! Have a go at her for something trivial - if she gets even the smallest thing wrong, there goes her whole argument - and congratulations, you've just posed an interesting challenge! By backing down and retreating to your man-cave, you've effectively validated her shitty attitude.

As I said before, her complaint isn't actually about your leadership - well, it is, but it isn't. She's actually challenging you to be all you can be. What she's really saying is, "why do you deny me the fullness of your presence?" Your heart's not in it, and she can sense it. You're not going to demonstrate your authority by running away with your tail between your legs; you need to face the storm head-on even if it's a frightening squall of feminine anger. If you're still standing at the end of it, she'll love you for it.

Problem 3: "Just as things were going well and Jack was starting to open up, I went in for the kill and straight off the bat, she told me to politely eff off and that she didn’t want 'to play.' ARGH!"

Solution: "Two Steps Forward, One Step Back"
"Always Leave a Little Mystery."

Never, ever, EVER, go straight for the kill. She's using it as bait to see how quickly you'll succumb, and guess what? You just failed the test! By all means, act interested, but you need to give the impression you could take it or leave it. You're a very busy person (have to save the galaxy and all that); you're in high demand (plenty of NPCs in the sea...); and you've got plenty of options (at least, dialogue-wise). You're kind of a big deal around here. Of course, you don't go around trumpeting that from the rooftops (lest you sound like a jerk), but you need to believe it to carry it off. They can smell the fear! They can smell the desperation! Going in for the kill at the first opportunity reeks of desperation.

Always, always, always tease, tease, tease. Two steps forward, one step back. For women, attraction is always about anticipation, and you don't get anticipation if you go for the whole hog at once. Run your finger across the back of your hand - she'll want to hold it. Let her hold it, but after a while, just let go. She won't know why, but that's the point: she won't know what's coming next, but she'll desperately want to know. Maybe play with her hair, behind her ears. If she lets you do this, then she'll let you kiss her. Lean in close, so there's that classic movie-distance between your faces. Then don't. Pull away. She won't know why you just did that, but you've just upped the intensity. She'll be left wondering when you're going to kiss her. If you're a woman and you're reading this, you're probably getting turned on right about now. That's because this is the way romance novels are written: two steps forward, one step back. Maybe this time you'll go in for the kiss, but it'll just be a peck on the cheek. Then go back to just hand-holding. This will infuriate her to no end. Pretty soon you'll have her so frustrated she'll grab you by the shoulders, give you a long, passionate kiss, and suck the air out of your lungs. Mission accomplished. See what happened there? You made her want it by dangling it there, and then pulling it away. She wants what she can't have, not what's readily available. If you go straight in for the kill, you're readily available. And while videogames haven't evolved quite this far as yet, the principle still applies when it comes to dialogue options.

Always leave a little bit of mystery. Women are very good at this, and it drives men crazy, but it works just as well the other way. If you tell her your life story in one hit, what have you left to intrigue her with? Nothing, that's what! You've effectively put yourself in an all-too-convenient box, and she'll lose interest. No, you need to dodge questions, give vague answers - this is why women call men liars, but this is also why they love male liars. Besides, they hate it when we get in on their trade, because they're so damn good at it themselves. Sure, it'll frustrate her to no end, but it will also drive her crazy. Pretty soon, her one obsession will be to unravel the mystery that is Captain Shepard. And that's exactly what you want.

Problem: "...she’s only used me to buy her dinner..."

Solution: "Go Dutch."
For those unfamiliar with 'going Dutch', that means split the bill. Let your date pay for her meal, and you pay for yours. By paying for everything, you're saying "I need to provide incentives to make you want to hang around me." This is not what you want. She should want to hang around you for you. Hanging around you should be such an amazing time, that she doesn't care where you go. It's okay to pay for things every know and then, as long as it's clear you're doing it because you want to - on your terms - not because society has thrust it upon you.

I think that about covers it for now. If you have any dating questions for me, ask away, and I'll do my best to answer them in my next post. Until then, go get 'em, Tiger!

25 January 2010

Raggamuffin Festival 2010: Lauryn Hill, Shaggy, Julian Marley, Sean Kingston & Steel Pulse Reviewed!

Saturday 30th January, 2010 at the Brisbane Riverstage, Australia.

Dreadlocks and weed smoke were the order of the day at the Brisbane Riverstage this January. Indeed, it was in surplus, or at least that’s the tale the Glad-bag full of joints on the ground outside told. Never have I witnessed a festival queue this long at this venue, not even for The Hives, Franz Ferdinand, or Nick Cave. And yet, for all the joints being passed around, I can’t imagine the bag-checking was terribly thorough. It seemed to be an unwritten rule – police presence was minimal if not non-existent – and security cracked down on fold-out chairs while developing convenient black spots in their vision in the shape of hand-rolled blunts. And why would you, I suppose; it kept the masses subdued enough not to cause any real trouble.

Unfortunately, I missed festival openers House of Shem due to the shambolic queuing system. I can at least say that their music sounded studio quality, as I was under the false impression that the music coming from the loudspeakers was being played from a compact disc.

When I finally entered the festival grounds, I wondered what perverted brand of justice would allow me to miss a talented band and not the infernal scribbling of Sean Kingston that followed. I don’t have much to say on the subject, actually – fans of Mr. Kingston would have been better off staying at home and listening to the CD – he was essentially standing on stage performing karaoke to his own tunes. Truly awful.

Thank God redemption was at hand, though, when Steel Pulse took to the stage. They sported a powerful reggae groove throughout the set, emphasising the bass line as all good reggae should. And while said grooves sat back in the saddle (again, as all good reggae should), the band played with a tightness that can only come from 35 years of musicianship.

Building on this strong musicianship came Melbourne-based blues and roots band Blue King Brown. Their set was as rhythmic as it was politically and emotionally charged. A great deal of that came from Haitian-born backing vocalist Ngaiire on the back of their tragic loss, but the stage well and truly belonged to lead singer and guitarist Natalie Pa’apa’a, loaded as she was with fire and charisma. This is strong message music at its finest – though perhaps a little too strong – I almost felt bad dancing to it, as if I was somehow trivialising its meaning by enjoying it aesthetically. I’m sure Pa’apa’a would be pleased to know this – mission accomplished!

Julian Marley, one of Bob’s many sons, followed to take things down a peg (or ’simmer down’, if you will). From a distance, I could have sworn it was the Man himself. Closing my eyes, I believed he was there. Unfortunately for Julian and his siblings, they will forever live in his father’s shadow. And how could you not, really – but there is still a degree to which they’ve failed to build on their father’s music – musically, politically, and spiritually. He looks like Bob, he sounds like Bob, but he doesn’t stir like Bob. Nonetheless, it remains a great privilege to be able to hear a Wailers tune sung by a Marley in this day and age.

Sly and Robbie came up as the sun went down, and the people danced into the night to their laundry list of riddims, each folding seamlessly into the next. Much as I revere them as pioneers and innovators of the Jamaican music scene, I found myself unable to penetrate their sound. It seemed so lost and unfocused, a reggae take on a Grateful Dead acid jam. But that’s some people’s bag, and I respect that.

Next came the one we were all waiting for (contrary to what Shaggy would have you believe) – Ms. Lauryn Hill – and by God, she’s still got it. I was truly astonished at how many devoted fans she still has even today, and in Australia no less. Their devotion was well deserved: Ms. Hill delivered a truly incendiary performance, spitting out lyrics like machine-gun fire. Set highlights included “Ready or Not” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)”. Julian Marley returned to the stage to perform a stunning duet of “Turn Your Lights Down Low”. The only down side was the annoying deejay, who was louder in the mix than even Hill, repeatedly yelling “come on Brisbane, make some nooo-oise!!” between each track. (Everyone could tell Lauryn hated him as well, which only added to our affinity.)

Shaggy closed the festival along similar lines (to the deejay, not Hill herself), under the false impression that everyone had come to see him. He seemed not at all impressed with the Brisbane crowd’s tired enthusiasm, despite the fact that it was 11pm and half of them were stoned out of their minds (some perhaps passively). It was a classic case of mismatched demographics: Shaggy was the drawcard to bring in a wider audience (mostly women who want to sleep with him for reasons unknown even to them), while reggae enthusiasts regard his music as Reggae Lite – watered down for the Great Unwashed. Strip reggae of all its political and spiritual significance, and what are you left with? A ‘rude boy’, and just a ‘rude boy’. Indeed, as I watched Shaggy (and Rayvon) amuse with his sexually-charged stagecraft, I found myself wanting for the stuff of substance: your Steel Pulses, your Blue King Browns, and your Lauryn Hills.

Wyclef Jean was originally billed to headline the show, but postponed his performance to 2011 to help the relief effort in his homeland of Haiti. It left me wondering – was Lauryn called in as a last-minute favour for an old friend? Or did she come out of hiding for the one opportunity she was guaranteed not to bump into her former lover and bandmate? Part of me hoped for a Fugees reunion, however unlikely that may have been. Nonetheless, I came away from Raggamuffin far from disappointed.

Wii! What is it Good For?

This is a response to "Nintendo is Lazy" that I started writing quite some time ago, but never finished. I was going to simply stow it away when every man and his dog beat me to the cake, but now that the value of the Wii is being so hotly debated, I thought it the perfect opportunity to dust this off in some finished form or other:

Four weeks ago, IGN's Editor-at-Large Matt Casamassina took aim at Nintendo's methodology and to a lesser extent, loyal Nintendo customers in his article "Nintendo is Lazy and You Don't Care"; an article which set the internet ablaze for all the wrong reasons. While I personally disagree with Matt's core argument, it is clear from the overwhelming reader response that this is a discussion worth having, and one that resonates with the gaming community.

The prevailing idea is that the Nintendo of Today is quantifiably different from the Nintendo of Yesterday; and now that they are ruling the roost (again, I might add), they are 'content to cut corners and cash in'. As his first example, Casamassina cites two playable versions of the character Toad in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in lieu of a playable Princess Peach. (Lest we forget Luigi's genesis as a Player 2 palette-swap in Super Mario Bros.) There is a symmetry inherent in the line-up here that I believe was very much intentional - two plumbers and two anthropomorphic toadstools - Miyamoto himself noted the similarities in physique between the two basic player models. As soon as you disrupt that symmetry and introduce a third player model, you are immediately obliged to devise a fourth player model, and additionally, behavioural and physical quirks (like those vaunted floating dress physics) to differentiate each character in gameplay. The question Casamassina and Nintendo fans need to ask themselves is just how much would a playable Princess Peach with floating-dress-physics really add to the overall experience? Not much, I'd wager. And yet, the entire game would need to be re-balanced to account for its inclusion, or something similar. Yes, this decision was made because it was easier to do, but it was also taken because the drawbacks (time spent rebalancing the gameplay, changing the physics, and possibly even redesigning the levels) absolutely outweigh any benefits that could possibly be gained from it (a playable Princess Peach with a floaty dress). This isn't laziness, this is a conscious design decision. Mario himself looks the way he does because the easiest way to define his bodily form was to give him a cap, moustache, and a pair of overalls. The entire experience was built around it - he's an Italian plumber that eats mushrooms (because Italians like mushrooms) and climbs down pipes (because that's what plumbers do); turtles try to stop him (because they live in the sewers, as any Ninja Turtles fan will tell you). New Super Mario Bros. Wii is built around four people enjoying the same experience in the same room at the same time - simply pick up and play, with no adjustments to be made - and if a feature of the game does not facilitate that, then it's extraneous, pure and simple. By extension, if Peach was playable in the game, she should have been cut. The road to game development is paved with these kinds of decisions; fraught with compromise - ask any developer whether there was anything they'd like to have implemented, but couldn't or didn't, and I'm sure they'd be happy to rattle off a laundry list of ideas and features - but most of the time, they just make sense. Like this one. Next!

Then Casamassina simultaneously applauds and decries Nintendo for effectively rejuvenating their business by bowing out of the hardware arms race. He mentions that he has covered both the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube during his tenure at IGN. It's hard to know where to even start with these remarks. Effectively he is asking for a repeat of the previous hardware generation - three similarly powerful consoles vying for a larger quadrant of the same piece of pie. Because it worked so well for them last time, didn't it? Come to think of it, I can't remember there ever being a time when cutting-edge graphics and audio has 'won' a 'console war', signifying to me and any other logical person that the gamers who demand this are indeed niche. Six million people may have purchased a copy of Modern Warfare 2, but how many more millions have purchased Mario Kart Wii or Wii Fit, and continue to do so month to month, year to year? When Nintendo disengaged themselves from the 'nuclear arms race', they also disengaged themselves from self-destructive business practices. Both Sony and Microsoft can afford to indulge in this, but for every unit they sell, they take a hit to the hip pocket, and more importantly, when one doesn't sell, they take an even greater hit. If the DS was to the Gameboy Advance what the Wii is to the Gamecube, then Nintendo's strategy was simply to extend the hardware lifecycle to whatever was sustainable. We're already seeing Sony and Microsoft grapple with this issue at the moment. We've had Sony banging on about their 'ten year cycle' when we just KNOW their machine doesn't have the legs to pull it off [and while we're here, has anyone noticed there's been virtually no mention of this vaunted cycle since the Slim came out and the console actually started selling?]. Meanwhile, Microsoft has been posturing Natal's release as a system relaunch. Both companies have realised they cannot afford to advance graphically at the pace they have been if they wish to remain (or in some cases, become) profitable. The bottom line is this: if you value cutting-edge graphics and audio, you should invest in a PC and keep your screwdriver handy. Otherwise, get ready for a seriously rough ride over the next few years.

But this isn't about Sony or Microsoft, this is about Nintendo. It wasn't laziness that drove Nintendo to 'redo' the Gamecube and rethink the input mechanism for console gaming - it was brilliance, and it was daring. Yes, it failed to live up to its promise of 'a new way to play', and yes, Wii Sports and WarioWare can now [sadly] be measured as the extent of motion-controlled gaming on the console rather than the potential, but I STILL APPLAUD THE STANCE. What it essentially said to me was this: prettier graphics, online play, and multimedia bullshit just doesn't cut it. The gaming industry has spent the last three hardware generations languishing in hardware upgrades and a well-stocked library of male power fantasies. What its devotees class as 'mature' games are actually insular, self-referential and immature. I agree with all of these statements, and that's why I bought the Wii.