Archive for June, 2010

Blood in the Sand…box.

Alright, let’s talk about sandbox games.

Sandbox games are pretty self-explanatory. Rather than follow the traditional formula of having the player progress through scripted stages, levels, or areas in a more-or-less linear fashion, sandbox games place your playable character in an open area with a variety of different objectives to be completed and allows you to complete them in any order you can/want.

I’ve been watching a Let’s Play of The Saboteur and it’s gotten me thinking about the genre. Next to first person shooters and sports games, I’d argue that sandbox titles are amongst the most prolific and broadest reaching genres currently in the public’s consciousness. This is all thanks to a little game you may not have heard of called Grand Theft Auto.


The epic story of an immigrant and his horny cousin

More specifically, Grand Theft Auto 3, a game which brought the sandbox to the 3-D realm and into the popular eye. Grand Theft Auto 3 turned a lot of heads, mostly due to its rather questionable content, most of which revolved around the stealing of cars and the mass-murdering of everyone and anyone you saw. The very definition of a sandbox game, GTA3 allowed players to explore New York, make money, choke bitches, and steal cars. Its sequels, Vice City and San Andreas, continued to expand upon just how lavish, large and explosive its sandbox became, until the game worlds became so big that they imploded upon themselves, swallowed a box of rust and gravel, and became Grand Theft Auto 4.

Now, to get this out of the way, I’ve never really cared much for the GTA series. I found the earlier games bland, and the later games tedious, but despite all that I’d say that GTA: San Andreas is probably one of the greatest sandbox games of all time, because it understood, intrinsically, what a sandbox is for. The entire point of a sandbox game is to give the player as many options to do as many things as possible. A pure sandbox game would present an entire world with a million things to do and let you do it–in otherwords, a MMORPG but without the people.

However, technology, time and imagination make it hard to make a game like that very interesting. Actual sandboxes got real boring real fast because, really, what can you do with sand other than ruin your clothes, get it in your eye, and make soggy-looking castles? San Andreas realized that, as big as it was, there wasn’t a whole lot to DO outside of various missions. Everything revolved around driving places, shooting people, and maybe flying a plane or two. The many missions were varied and interesting, but the world itself–comprised of three entire cities–seemed stretched thin and shallow.

Doesn't it just call to you?

Of course, GTA made massive amounts of money and caused lots of gaming journalists to cream their pants in feverish glee at the prospect of  bigger worlds, faster cars, more hookers and nobody really stopped to point out the obvious flaws. Of course, time forces innovation, whether innovation is wanted or not, and the typical sandbox game is quite a bit different from GTA–and by “quite a bit different” I mean “exactly the same, but with an added gimmick to advertise the game by”.

Just Cause had a grappling hook, The Saboteur had Nazis, and Prototype had the ghoulish abandonment of one’s humanity in pursuit of power and num nums. Of those three, Prototype is the only one I particularly liked, mostly because it wasn’t exactly the same as Grand Theft Auto. Prototype was much like another sort of open-world game, the Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction, as both were made by Radical Entertainment, a Canadian company that spends most of the time it isn’t squeezing the blood out of the dead and rotting Crash Bandicoot franchise absolutely not ripping off GTA. It also  makes mediocre racing games and shitty snowboarding games.

Anyway, Prototype tickled my fancy because it had an actually deep and realized combat engine with a focus on chaining combos and switching various power forms in order to take on increasingly more difficult enemies. With a B-movie-style 50’s Science-Fiction/Horror plot and laughably grotesque levels of violence, Prototype proved that you can do more in a sandbox without needing to drive a fucking car and commit crimes. Of course, even Prototype isn’t that original, simply expanding upon what Crackdown had already done some years before, but I reward the effort at least.

Sandbox games have continued to grow and develop beyond the waves of GTA clones. Now we have superhero-style sandbox games, like Prototype and Infamous, western-style sandbox games like Gun and the seminal Red Dead Redemption, but we still haven’t shaken off the lurking shadow of the GTA, as even good sandbox games like Red Dead can be described as “Grand Theft Auto in a ___”. GTA  has become the die-hard of the gaming world, and is increasingly growing just as stale.

Sandbox games aren’t all cars and shooting and crime. We’ve got your FPS sandboxes, like Fallout 3 and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., RPG sandboxes like the Elder Scrolls series, and strange sandboxes like Assassin’s Creed, which combines elements of all the above and adds in hilarious anachronisms and stabby stabby murder to the traditional formula.

My problem with sandbox games is and always has been that they give you too much freedom. You’ve got a whole world to explore, but you have no clue where to start, and you eventually start to realize that the world isn’t as big as it seems, since there’s only so much you can do, and the open-ended structure makes it hard for there to be big, ‘memorable’ sequences outside of those you create with happenstance and fuckery. Most sandbox games have loose controls and hilarious levels of gameplay and story segregation, where whatever you do in the sandbox ultimately doesn’t have any lasting impact on the world itself. In San Andreas, you could eventually control the city through a gang war side game that was honestly more interesting than the main story itself, but even that was just a means without an end.

Sandbox games must appeal to folks who treat their games like, well, a game. They just want to pick it up, do some stuff for half an hour, then go about their day. That’s all well and good, but I need more. I need impetus–why I am doing what I’m doing? What will happen to this setting if I do X, Y and Z? The latest generation of sandbox games have been attempting to address this, and I’m genuinely grateful. The Saboteur, although a relatively mediocre game, rewards your destruction and mission completion by making the game…well…visible (or at least removing the god-awful black and white filter). Fallout 3 attempted this and partially succeeded, as news of your exploits are sung on the radio and you have the potential to destroy an entire town pretty early on, but so far, there hasn’t been a sandbox game that’s REALLY made me feel as though I’m an active part of this virtual world.

If I’m in a sandbox, I want to actually build a sand castle, not just play with someone else’s. With the technology available to us, I’d like to see a sandbox game that has a world that constantly shifts and evolves as you go through it. If you start gunning down cops and pedestrians, I want to see less people in the streets, houses being boarded up, armored patrols replacing state troopers. If you start robbing fast food resteraunts over and over again, I want the news to report, and other stores start arming themselves against you.

Fortunately, I think we’re headed in this direction. I think GTA’s grip has lessened on the genre, as more developers start taking original ideas and implementing new ways to run a sandbox. And the old formula wasn’t bad per se. I’m not the biggest GTA4 fan–mostly because I find the controls troublesome and the storyline bland–but my GTA-fan friends love the detail and intricacy of the world and the evolution of old gameplay mechanics.

I just wish it wasn’t such a one-way mirror–we can see this lovely world, but scarcely touch it. I don’t get bored of living in the real world, because there’s always something changing in response to my actions. I shouldn’t be bored in a virtual world for exactly the same reason, and the fact that I am shows that this genre still has a lot of evolving to do.


Grade-A Metroid Prime

You step carefully through a mist-laden corridor. The ship is in disarray–something has torn through it, something  big. Sparks leap off torn piping, steam hisses from the vents. An alien corpse lays in the corner, its body littered with dozens of tiny holes. Your emerald visor begins to glow as you scan a still-functioning computer. An airlock hisses, air rushes into the narrow corridor, and the doors slide open, revealing a gutted laboratory awash with flame.

This is one of the first sights you encounter when playing Metroid Prime. Developed by then-unknown developer Retro Studios and released November 17, 2002, Metroid Prime was the first title in Nintendo’s popular “Metroid” franchise to be in 3-D. Released amidst a metric ton of controversy, most of which reserved for the fact that the side-scrolling franchise had been transformed into a first person shooter, the game received incredibly high marks from reviewers and gamers alike, and remains to this day one of the most beloved and well-known games of its era.

First Person Metroid

The HUD familiar to Prime players. The first person viewpoint was controversial at the time.

Metroid Prime eventually got two sequels, all of which are now familiarly known as the Metroid Prime Trilogy. As a new Metroid looms, developed by a new studio, I felt it only fitting that we should take a look at this trilogy. I admit, I was inspired to reexamine these games thanks to a rather entertaining Let’s Play of the Prime trilogy currently underway on the Something Awful Forums.

For those unfamiliar, Metroid was an NES title produced by the late Gunpei Yokoi and designed by Makoto Kanoh. At a time when games were still in their infancy, and sidescrollers tended to be Mario-style platformers or else run and gun shooting games, Metroid bucked the trend by presenting a massive world with an emphasis on exploration. You no longer just ran to the right in order to beat the game–Metroid introduced vertical exploration and non-linear progression, allowing gamers to discover the myriad power ups and bonuses hidden throughout the game in whatever order they could manage to reach them.

Metroid spawned a successful franchise that seemed to grind to a halt after its seminal 16-bit successor, Super Metroid. The Nintendo 64 came and went, and outside of a few screens and teaser trailers, a 3-D Metroid seemed to be mere vaporware. That is, until Metroid Prime was announced for the Nintendo Gamecube.

And the rest is history. Gamers’ reservations over the first person perspective persisted up until the game was launched, but those reservations were swiftly put aside when they realized that Metroid Prime is an incredible game. It was one of the very few games to net a perfect score from Electronic Gaming Monthly and it quickly became a must-have for the system. But enough history lesson–let’s discuss the game itself.

Gameplay in Prime retained the basic Metroid formula–find power ups to unlock new areas whilst solving puzzles and dropping bombs to blow up rocks to find more power-ups. The game looked and felt like a Metroid game, with classic enemies and bosses showing up to challenge the player, remixes of familiar music tracks, and tons and tons of items hidden all over the lushly detailed planet.

The biggest innovation to gameplay was the utilization of a “Scan Visor”–a somewhat  gimmicky powerup first featured in Super Metroid–to interact with the environment. In fact, the entire plot of the game is learned through this visor. There’s no dialogue and the only impetus for the events of the game come from wordless cutscenes and a single paragraph at the beginning of the game. Prime managed to retain what I consider the most important element of a Metroid game–its atmosphere–by giving you a sense of isolation and wonderment at the harsh, yet beautiful alien landscape you find yourself exploring. Visors play an important role in all the Prime games, altering the way you see the world in order to expose enemy weaknesses or reveal hidden paths and platforms.

The game isn’t without its flaws. For one, it’s almost insultingly easy, with only boss fights and a few single enemies providing anything resembling a challenge. The game’s myriad glitches, while not impacting a regular playthrough, provided sequence-breakers ample opportunities to take advantage of room geometry and get various power ups much earlier than intended. The game also features a lot of backtracking and rather basic puzzles and–most infamously–a late game-padding fetch quest where you have to collect 12 MacGuffins in order to unlock the final boss. Sure, it kept with the theme of exploration and item collection, but frankly, with only vague riddles to tell you where to go, this final fetch quest was the biggest reason many people were unable to beat the game.

Still, Metroid Prime was a big hit, and thanks to its great atmosphere and amazing music, a sequel was quickly green-lit: Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Echoes retained the first-person perspective whilst tightening up the graphics on level 3 and ratcheting up the difficulty by leaps and bounds. Perhaps by too much–among the many criticisms the game received, its harsh difficulty is one of the most-cited.

Echoes is a flawed game, and time has been less-kind to its legacy than it has been to Prime’s. Like Prime, it features a MacGuffin fetch-quest. Unlike Prime, this fetch quest is reiterated over and over throughout the game, as every major location requires you to find three keys to unlock the boss fight, and the final location requires nine. Well, that’s not too bad–except that all of these keys are hidden in an alternate dimension that wants to kill you.

Yep, Echoes’ big selling point was the time-honored Nintendo standard: A “Light” and “Dark” World. Hopping between dimensions via portals, the player now has to solve puzzles in two worlds at once to advance. The Dark World is nightmarish–just being in it causes you to quickly take damage unless you take shelter in various “safe zones” scattered throughout the level. Combine this with strong, fast enemies who take three times the amount of punishment that any Prime 1 enemy did, and you have a recipe for frustration. But the frustration gets an added kick of pepper when you realize that all of these MacGuffins are hidden within this Dark World, meaning that in order to beat the game, you must explore a world that actively discourages you from exploring it.

Well, luckily, Metroid isn’t really a series about exploring, is…oh.

Echoes gets a bad rep nowadays, and for many deserved reasons–in addition to the frustrating fetch quests and dark world shenanigans, the game’s objectives are murky at best, and you’ll find yourself running around in circles, shooting and scanning everything you can until the game helpfully calls you an idiot and points out exactly on your map where you have to go, but doesn’t tell you what to do when you get there.

That said, Echoes improves a lot of things over Prime 1. Item collection and puzzle solving has been refined and enhanced, to the point where even the most basic collectible requires you to go through elaborate mazes, solve intricate puzzles, or negotiate tricky platforms. It’s really quite fun, and once the game opens up to you, there’s a lot of fantastic puzzles to solve and mazes to explore. There’s an emphasis on the Morph Ball in Echoes that Prime can’t even begin to touch.

Check out this video–you might want to skip to the 6:15 mark, that’s when he gets to the room with the puzzle.

He messes up a few times, but it’s a good example of how complicated and elaborate these morph ball puzzles are. Considering that the Morph Ball is one of the most iconic elements of Metroid, Echoes’ shining moments all utilize it in some capacity, including an entire boss fight fought entirely in ball form.

For all its flaws, I consider Echoes a better game than Prime. It expands upon the original, refines the gameplay, and raises the challenge. That said, I like playing Prime better. It shows its age nowadays, but the atmosphere, the music, and the nostalgia just fit better for me. I admit, its an easier game, but that makes it all the more fun to play, and at least I don’t have to hop across dimensional rifts just to unlock a friggin’ door!

Now, the third game in the Prime Trilogy, Metroid Prime Corruption…I haven’t played. I know, terrible–I’m doing a retrospective on a trilogy I’ve only experienced 2/3rds of. I don’t own a Nintendo Wii, which Corruption was released on, and thus haven’t had an opportunity to play it. I can say that, from what I’ve heard and what I’ve read and seen, it appears to be the happy medium between Prime and Echoes. Incorporating an innovative control scheme that utilizes the Wii’s motion controls to aim and fire, as well as a heavy emphasis on story, Corruption seems like the natural apex for the trilogy to reach.

It attracted some controversy from die-hard Metroid fans due to its voice acting and general dialogue, but every review I’ve ever read seemed to indicate that the gameplay far superseded these concerns. Better yet, both Prime and Echoes have been re-released and repackaged along with Corruption, all of which now taking advantage of the Wii’s unique controls–and all three games for just $40. Or, at least, they were. According to Amazon, the Metroid Prime Trilogy can run you about $71 new, but I’ve seen copies in game stores for its original price, so a diligent consumer can search them out.

This article has gone on long enough, and frankly, I’ve only touched the very surface of what these games have to offer. Maybe in the future I’ll do an in-depth analysis of each individual game, but in conclusion, I’ll say this:

Metroid Prime and its sequels remain, in my mind, some of the finest video games ever produced. Integrating both gameplay and story, where your actions have an impact on the world around you and the outcome of the narrative, and combining intense action and intricate puzzle solving, the Prime games remain solid titles. Yes, their flaws are many, and I can imagine most people would have a lot of trouble getting into Echoes in this day and age, considering how unforgiving it is, and the flaws in its level design, but I feel it good points outweigh the bad.

Now, of course, we have Metroid: Other M, which looks to be taking the series in another new direction. I’ll miss our first person adventures–exploring the galaxy through Samus Aran’s visor holds a lot of fond memories and fun times for me. From a technical standpoint, the games were revolutionary when they came out, managing to incorporate platforming into a first person game without it being an exercise in frustration. In fact, Prime 1 single-handidly created the “First Person Adventure” genre, which has since spawned games like Mirror’s Edge, where platforming is more important than shooting. The Prime trilogy’s legacy is assured, and well-deserved as well.

If you haven’t had the opportunity, and own either a Wii or Gamecube, you owe it to yourself to at least play the original Metroid Prime. Few games have moved me as deeply as that one has, and it represents, in my mind, the absolute core Metroid experience.

Wandering a dark, desolate spaceship, steam gushing from broken vents. You hear something crawling in the darkness. You know you should avoid it…but you never know what kind of treasure you’ll find through that vent. You prime your cannon and take a bold step forward…

Hello and good day. I am the 8-Bit Scholar, AKA Iain Woessner. I’m a semi-professional journalist and avid gamer, and I’ve created this blog because I am, like many of you, a big fan of video games. As gaming nears its 40th birthday (starting from the invention of Pong in 1972), the world of gaming has grown and developed in ways perhaps no one could have ever predicted.

In today’s gaming world, you have handheld systems producing 3-D visual effects without the aid of glasses, consoles that respond to a person’s movements, facial expressions so realistic its almost terrifying. Video games have swelled from being one-man programming experiments to 100-member team projects, with resources, budgets and effects rivaling the most ambitious of Hollywood projects.

Video game culture has evolved and come to define and redefine itself multiple times. No longer are gamers shut-in nerds thought to live in isolation in their parents’ households. Gamers have developed their own language, terminology, and have managed to seek professional recognition for their skills. True, there’s still a heavy stigma against video games–as a more “inactive” hobby, it doesn’t inspire the same degrees of respect and admiration that pastimes like most sports do. That’s a discussion for later, though.

This blog has a few goals. First of all, its a place for me to ruminate on the nature of gaming, and how it can and should evolve. Secondly, it should serve as a forum to analyze various aspects of gaming, ranging from genre to gameplay conventions. Thirdly, I’ll be reviewing various games, and likely creating video-based reviews and Let’s Plays of games. This blog is a work-in-progress, and of course, it is one of only a hundred million other video-game blogs. Why should you read it? Well, I’ll be doing my best to entertain, to inform, and to treat this as a semi-professional site, with articles and columns that adhere to basic journalistic standards. I’ll do my best to offer you stories and reviews of a higher standard than most you’ll find on the internet. Hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have to say and support this blog however you can.

I’ll be making some sort of update at least twice a week, perhaps more if time permits. So, for now, thank you for reading, and I’ll be in touch in the future.