VGT – Disappointing Video Games

I’m back in the proverbial video game theology saddle and today I’m writing about disappointment.  Now the inspiration for writing about such a subject comes from the implementation project at my work.  The planned go-live date was pushed back several weeks after the staff training.  Where did things go wrong?  First, the software vendor over simplified their software during the sales pitch and demonstration.  They said our staff would be able to be trained in the software in thirty minutes.  We were not so naive as to believe that a thirty minute training would be enough but we did think we could do it in two hours.  Second, the software vendor under-delivered during the implementation.  There were several key moments in which they said “no problem” during the phone calls with management, but eventually confessed that they could not do it.  Third, my department perhaps underestimated the complexity of the work that is done by other departments.  There were times when it wasn’t the software’s fault, but our own organization for sometimes over-complicating simple tasks.  I have to admit that many of the complications are related to county and state regulations that require us to document tasks in order for us to get paid.  There were lessons learned all around.

There.  I had to get that out in order to focus on something far more entertaining.  Where have I felt that feeling of being let down before?  Oh yes, in the world of video games!  I have a short list of a few video games that were a disappointment to me.  I’m going in chronological order.

Ricochet Pong – We all owe a lot to Pong.  Pong made video games popular.  It was fun to play in an arcade against a friend.  We were playing a game on a TV screen.  It was a marvel.  In the late seventies, they developed a way to play Pong at home.  There was a mad rush to the market of a variety of Pong clones.

Never believe the claims on the box

On Christmas, my brothers and I were given a Pong system called Ricochet.  The box itself claimed to be the end of electronic TV boredom – because it wasn’t just Pong in black and white, but Pong in COLOR.  In reality, it was just Pong in color.  It was my first step into the world of video game disappointment.

The Fantasy

Pac-Man for the Atari 2600 – I believe I have mentioned that when I was a kid, I did not have an Atari.  However, I made sure that I had a friend who did!  His name was Robbie Foster and he really was a great friend to me.  We played outside a lot back then, but there was no joy greater than sitting in front of his TV playing those Atari games.  There was so much hype about Pac-Man coming to the Atari.  The arcade game was fun, colorful, addicting, and had great sound effects.

The Reality

The game that came on the Atari cartridge was none of those things.  It was not colorful.  Pac-Man did NOT look or act like Pac-Man.  The game was one great flicker as the system tried to process the graphics.  The sound effect of Pac-Man eating dots was a metallic “BEH” sound.  It was a game you played a few times, you tried to like it, then you tried to forget it.

How could this NOT be awesome!

Space Shuttle Project for the NES – This was one of my first Nintendo Entertainment System game cartridges.  To be fair, this was not a terrible game.  When I went searching on the internet for screen shots, I discovered the game did not look that bad for it’s time.  Why was it such a disappointment?  In retrospect, I think it was because I was so excited about owning a NES but I was unable to afford the higher end games.  I put a lot of hope into this game.

This is so not awesome

The box art and description gave me the feeling of a simulation rather than a game.  I thought I might feel like I was piloting the space shuttle.  Instead I was playing a bunch of mini games, puzzle games, and quick time events.  It wasn’t bad, just disappointing.

A great score in Nintendo Power!

Nights: Journey of Dreams for the Wii – I bought this game new as a Christmas present for my son.  I had recently re-subscribed to Nintendo Power after purchasing a Wii and I read a glowing review of this game in the magazine.  If I remember correctly it received either a 9 or a 10.  The review painted this game as beautifully rendered with addictive game play elements.  When we played it on Christmas morning, it was beautiful but incredibly boring.  It was a flying game that was on rails.  Where’s the freedom of flying when you are on rails?  Oh but Ted, you get to do LOOPS!  What a waste of money.  I learned then never to trust a game review in a magazine sponsored by the game company.  Nintendo Power gave that game too high of a score because they wanted to sell their system.  This was also when I started to realize that I typically don’t enjoy games made by Sega.

That’s all I can think up at 5:00 am.  It feels good to be writing again on my blog.  Thanks to all for being patient as I focused on my job!

Working and Working and Working

I like this recent photo of my wife!

Hello!  Work has been keeping me busy as we implement new software.  Today is day two of training before going live on Friday.  So the days and nights have been long for Wild Man Ted.  I look forward to getting back into a normal routine soon.  I still have been sneaking some game time in.  I downloaded some of the Mario games for the original GameBoy onto my 3DS and they are good pick up and play games.  I’m also playing a little Mass Effect 1 when I can get a chance.  Look for some more posts from me starting next week.  Thanks for following along!

VGT – To Hack Or Not To Hack?

Not THAT kind of hacking!

To hack or not to hack, that is the question.  At least that’s the question that I’m pondering this morning.  What am I talking about?  Hacking is the process of altering a computer’s software and/or hardware for purposes outside of the original design.  In business, hacking can clearly be a terrible thing – a hacker might gain access to a bank or a hospital and gain access to information.  But in the world of video games, it is not as serious a situation.  There are hacks for every major game system.  The main purpose for hacking is typically to run emulators.  For example, a typical hacked Xbox 360 would be able to play almost any game from an older game system.  You could play the original Super Mario Brothers on a NES emulator on your Microsoft system.

The Zelda exploit

I would like to describe how I hacked my wii.  This was a few years ago, so the process is probably much simpler now.  I heard about something called “The Twilight Hack” so I looked it up on the internet.  I basically followed the instructions I found there.  I copied some files to the SD card.  I used my Twilight Princess disk to go into the game I guided Link over to talk to someone and that activated the hack.  There must have been some security hole in the game.  From there I was able to reboot the wii and all of the sudden there was a new channel on the screen called the Home Brew channel!

A whole new world

It was kind of cool.  I looked up all kinds of programs that would run on the Home Brew channel.  There were games that others had made, emulators, and I was intrigued to discover there was even a DVD player program.  Now that’s something; Nintendo made the Wii with a built in DVD drive but did not put any factory software to play movies.  I guess they determined for me that I would not enjoy watching a DVD movie on my wii.

The Positives about having a hacked Wii were many.  I found emulators to play many ROMs.  The Wii played classic NES and SNES games perfectly, and they looked great on my Vizio.  I also found an Atari emulator and it was great to see some of those “old friends” – games I had forgotten about.  Now, if I own these systems already, why would I want to play them on an emulator?  Good question.  Sometimes, if I want to play an older system, I have to connect it to the TV and attach everything correctly.   Often, by the time I get everything hooked up, I’ve lost the desire to play – so playing an emulator saves time.  It has also given me exposure to games that I never played.  As a collector, it helps me to keep my eye open for an original cartridge.  Emulators are great but there is nothing as cool as playing the original game on the original system.  Without an emulator, I would never have tried a great game like Chrono-Trigger.  Now I want that original cartridge so badly!

The Negatives about hacking a system are that it violates the warranty (which on my Wii had long run out).  It can also put you “outside” that world the game designers created.  Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony do NOT want you to hack your system.  There is a battle in which they are constantly trying to perform updates to stop the hackers.  Hackers in turn find a new way for the hack to work and release it.  The seesaw goes back and forth.  That is what happened to me.  I thoughtlessly performed a system update on my Wii.  When I restarted, my Homebrew Channel was gone and my poor little Wii was brainwashed again.  The only way to stop being updated is to “unplug”.

The Xbox 360 hack unlocks games

I had a friend of mine hack my Xbox 360.  He had to open it up and make some changes to circuitry in order for it to work.  It truly does some awesome stuff.  I can copy a game onto the hard drive and play it without the disk.  That feature came in  handy when I rented Batman Arkham City and it kept locking up when playing from the disk.  I dumped it onto the hard drive and it played fine.  (My son was actually the one playing it).  But now I’m outside the world of Microsoft.  I can’t connect to Microsoft Live even to buy and download a game because the hack might be detected and removed.  It’s lonely living on the outside sometimes.  If I ever changed my mind, I’m not even sure I could go back.  I actually have some mixed feelings about it.

There are some ethical considerations.  Is it wrong to hack your game system?  Is it wrong to play games on an emulator rather than purchasing them legitimately?  Do you have some other purpose for hacking your system that I haven’t thought of?  What do you think?

VGT – Coin-Op Games That Were Too Hard (For Me)

Sometimes you start writing about one subject and you find your mind drifting to other subjects.  I started off this morning writing about zombies and why they are such a popular feature in video games.  I reasoned with myself that most zombie games are survival games in which you try to stay alive as long as possible.  That is not my favorite type of game and I found myself losing interest.  (It’s not good when you start to lose interest in your own writing!).  Then my mind started to drift to back to the days of my youth when I would hang out at Time Out Arcade…

The early days of video games were almost always based on that “survive as long as you can” premise.  Why was that?  There are a couple of reasons.  One, because the goal was to get players to spend their quarters and the best way to do that was to create games that tried to end your game as quickly as possible.  Two, there were limits to hardware and programming back then – a game could only do so much so wave after wave of increasing difficulty was the only way to go.

I have come up with three classic arcade coin operated games that were simply too hard for me to play.  I enjoyed watching others play them, but I just could not get the hang of them.

Land this perfectly or die

Lunar Lander – The game looked so simple.  It was black and white with vector graphics.  You controlled the spaceship with a simple left-right and thrust controls.  So why was the game so hard?  There was something about this game that made it feel real.  You knew it was just a simple image on the screen but you could almost imagine yourself to be an astronaut in training.  I happened to be a terrible astronaut.  You had to control the lander with precision and I was too reckless.  If you came down too fast or a little bit off the platform your ship exploded.  I loved to watch someone else play this game if they were good at it – it was almost like a ballet, a gentle dance.

Twin joystick action!

Robotron 2084 – A futuristic game in which you are trying to save innocent people from being destroyed by swarm after swarm of robots.  One of the elements that made this game distinctive was the fact that it had no fire button.  Control of your character was done by two joysticks.  The left joystick controlled your motion and the right joystick controlled your direction of fire.  You could move one direction and fire in another.  You could also fire in all directions very quickly – and you needed to.  Those robots would start coming from everywhere fast.  It was a little stressful to watch!  I would barely make it past the second wave.

Only the best could play this game

Defender – How could I not mention this game?  Just one look at the controls intimidated me.  There was up-down, thrust, fire, reverse, and smart bomb.  I remember thinking to myself, “Learning to play this game has to be like learning to type.”  But there were people who were good at this game.  They could pilot that spaceship with precision and shoot down the invaders.  It always unnerved me to watch this game – that sound the little space alien would make when picking up a human.  I can still hear it.  I’m still amazed that somehow they made a port of Defender for the Atari 2600.  They somehow took all those complex controls and put them onto a joystick with a single button!  I couldn’t play it on the Atari either.

All three of these games had some unique control features.  I have emulators but they simply do not reproduce the actual experience of playing these in an arcade.  If you really want to reproduce the experience.  Step 1: Buy an arcade game.  Step 2: Paint a room black, wire it with bad lighting, and put the game in it.  Step 3: Add the odor of a locker room and cigarette smoke.  Bam!  You are back in the arcades during the 70’s and 80’s!

VGT – My Console Collection Part 4

You can see that on the header of my blog is a photo of many of my consoles arranged like books on a bookshelf.  Each Sunday I’m working my way across the bookshelf in order to write a little something about my game consoles both new and old.  I have been going from right to left, so let’s see what is next in line.

The Last Console Made by Sega

Sega Dreamcast – This was the last console produced by Sega.  If you remember, in the eighties there was a great console war and people were forced to pick sides.  Some chose to go the enlightened path of Nintendo and others embraced the dark side of Sega.  With Nintendo you had a colorful plumber as a mascot named Mario.  He was always friendly and polite, and of course was always rescuing the princess.  Sega had a blue hedgehog named Sonic who was fast, brash, and ate chili-dogs.  It was clear that Sonic was created as a reaction to the clean cut Mario.  The great war ensued.  Nintendo went from the NES, to the Super NES, and finally to the 64.  All Nintendo systems were considered to be successful.  However, Sega went from the Genesis, to the 32X adapter for the Genesis, to the Sega Saturn, and finally to the system on my shelf – the Dreamcast.

An honest assessment of the Dreamcast reveals it to be a really good system.  I have many games that look great and are fun to play.  It even has a built-in 56K dial up modem to access the internet (useless today) but the system was definitely forward thinking in its time.  It is a little confusing to me why the system was not a success.  It was one of the first “next generation” consoles of that time and it was packed with features and quality games.  The best explanation I’ve ever come across is that the Sony Playstation 2 came out with quality games and one key feature that the dreamcast did not have – a DVD player.  Many Sony’s were bought not as game consoles but as affordable DVD players.  I picked up my Dreamcast in the original box at a Goodwill store.  I find the system to be an elegant addition to my collection.

Galatians from the Codex Sinaiticus

NIV Bible – This system is the oldest of all my consoles.  The original programming languages were Hebrew, Greek, and a little Aramaic but the New International Version first made an appearance in 1978.  There are many very reliable versions of this console nick-named “the Good Book”.  Content is largely divided into two sections – The Old Testament (also known as the Jewish Testament) and the New Testament.  This console has received critical acclaim for many years and it is viewed by many as a great collector’s item.  Because it is text-based, it is rarely taken down from the shelf by Gamers because it has been declared by many experts in the field to be obsolete.  However, true Video Game Theologians have found that this book is still capable of delivering a great experience.  Within its software design are hours of adventure, mystery, even sex, violence, failures, heroes, and redemption.

All the Fun of a PS2 – Only Slimmer

Playstation 2 – This is just a slimmer version of Sony’s popular system.  Shortly after Shelia and I were married in 2011, I discovered this in a drawer.  She had it for when her nieces and nephew would visit.  I was impressed that she even had a system.  She is completely and utterly NOT a gamer.  She loves exercise and books – I can’t decide which she likes more.  She has been a wonderful part of my life.  I talked about the original design Playstation 2 in part 1 of the series.  Here is a link to that page.

I’m all out of time for this morning.  I have children’s church!

VGT – A Double N-Gagement

It is so hard not to abuse puns about the Nokia N-Gage!  As big fan of video games and theology, I like to collect older game consoles and handhelds.  In the great annals of video game history, there have been amazing successes and there have been colossal failures.  Unfortunately the N-Gage was not a success and after a few short minutes with the device I was able to see why.

2 Nokia N-Gages and a game card

But first let me share how I caught N-Gage fever.  I was at a Goodwill store in Charlotte and came across a bin of cartridges.  There were several games for the 3DO.  The guy at the register said, “You should have been here thirty minutes ago, you could have bought the system.”  I can not tell you how awesome it would have been to get my hands on the 3DO.  However, I went ahead and picked up the games.  I grabbed a few cartridges for the Atari 7800 as well (I don’t have that system either) and spotted a game for the N-Gage.  “Why Not,” I thought to myself and picked it up.  Later that evening, I decided to go on Ebay and saw that people were selling the phone/game system for as much as $100.  However, I found a listing of 2 systems for $40.  I snatched it up with Buy It Now.  The listing made it clear that these were demo machines and the phone was disabled.  There apparently are instructions on the internet for unlocking.

They arrived yesterday and are in excellent condition.  Each phone had a game but the cards clearly are marked as demos and not for resale.  The games are NCAA Football 2004 and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.    They both powered up so I’m going to give the seller a good review.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater

Think about how this concept was ahead of its time.  You can play games on your phone.  Why did this idea not work?  Today, there are millions of people playing games on their iPhones and Androids.  One, reason is that the world just wasn’t ready in 2003 to combine their GameBoys with their cell phones.  Two, the cost was $300.  Three, like many hybrid products – it doesn’t function great as a phone or a game system.  Nokia tried to release an improved version about a year later but it was too late.

Almost  immediately, my initial impressions about the device found it to be confusing and awkward to use.  I had a hard time figuring out the menu.  The screen seems so small by today’s standards and there is no touch feature.  It’s amazing how quickly I’ve become used to touch screens!  The buttons are numerous and I’m not sure  what they all do.  One of the great criticisms of the phone was that when talking on the phone you held the thin edge up to your head.  Due to the unique shape of the phone, it led to jokes about talking into a taco.

N-Gage Taco Phone!

As a gaming platform, the games just don’t look good.  They look like PlayStation 1 games on a bad hair day.  Plus, to change a game card, I have to remove the back cover, remove the BATTERY, and then change the card.  Who ever thought that would be a good idea?  I’m going to play around with it some more.  I’m happy to own this small chapter in video game history, but I don’t think I will be using it very much.  The nerd in me is thinking about activating it and using it as a phone anyway!

Time to change games!

VGT – Okami and Regeneration

It is one of the facts of life that work so often gets in the way of play.  But as I recently read in the book Quitter by Jon Acuff, “90 percent perfect and shared with the world always changes more lives than 100 hundred percent perfect and stuck in your head.”  I have wanted to write about Okami since I started this blog but I also wanted to include some video of the game.  I am in the middle of a large project at work and a video is just not going to happen.  So here is my 90 percent…..

Okami is a VERY Japanese game and it encapsulates the best of the culture.  It has bright colors, an interesting story of legend, great monsters, and a great hero – a white wolf named Amaterasu.

Okami originally came out on the Sony Playstation 2 and then was ported to the Wii.  The art direction is first rate and it’s a shame that the game did not sell very well.  The visuals are so stunning and a real treat for the eyes.  

The story-line is excellent and is based upon genuine Japanese mythology.  A terrifying dragon has unleashed darkness on the world and the curse has burned up vegetation, polluted the waters, and made the world a dismal place.  Nature’s beauty has been taken out of the world.  Except one village is able to resist because it is protected by a goddess named Sakuya.  She implores a stone statue of a world to, “Shine your divine light upon this broken and polluted world.”  The statue awakens and a white wolf appears.  The wolf is more than a mere animal, she is an actual goddess in wolf’s form called Okami Amaterasu.  You play the part of this goddess/wolf and slowly restore the land to its true state of beauty.  Following the lead of games like The Legend of Zelda, the wolf does not speak.  Instead she is joined by a tiny flea-sized artist who tags along for the rest of the adventure.  Navi anyone?

Brush combat

The fact that gameplay is similar to The Legend of Zelda series in many ways – to me is a good thing.  Your character gains skills and abilities throughout the game.  Each new skill is integral to destroying the boss monster for each level.  However, the gameplay incorporates a unique concept.  You can freeze the game at any point in combat and use a brush to paint a supernatural action.  For example, if a bridge is out, you can paint a repaired bridge into existence.  Or in combat, a single swipe of ink can cut an enemy in half.  There is a limited amount of ink, so you must be strategic as to how you use this gift.

Now for some theology.  It is probably not a surprise that Japanese mythology has some key differences when compared to Christian theology.  For example, there are many gods and goddesses throughout the story.  I say gods or goddesses with “a small g” because they are really more like demi-gods than a single all powerful deity – or God with “a capital G”  In fact the Amaterasu gains strength from the prayers of people in the game – almost dependent upon humans for strength.  The God of Christian theology is truly all powerful and does not need human strength. I’ve already commented in an earlier post about how most video games rely on dualism to tell their stories.

But Okami has some small glimpses of the concept of regeneration.  Regeneration is a word that implies restoration to the way something was intended to be.  One of my theology textbooks describes regeneration in this way.  “The purpose of the gospel is not merely to make bad men good or even make good men better but to bring dead men back to life.”*   Here is how Okami illustrates that concept in a way that really affects me emotionally when I see it.  When Amaterasu restores a Guardian Sapling, life is unleashed on that dying section of the world.  From the source of the lifted curse – life just pours out and it affects everything in it’s path.  Trees and grass return to green, rivers become clear, the sky becomes blue.  It is one of the best pictures of regeneration that I’ve ever come across.  Notice, that it’s not just generation, but RE-generation.  It’s the restoration of what was once ruined and ugly.  The beauty is restored.

 I’m attaching a youtube video (made by someone else – so I’m thankful I found it) that shows all of the restoration cut scenes of the Guardian Saplings. Something I like to think about when I see it: God is working that same miraculous change within me.

* Daniel Akin, A Theology for the Church