Saturday, December 17, 2016

Retro Thoughts - Star Control

Retro-Thoughts, in which I try out one of the many games I missed out on during my youngers years and give you my thoughts on it. This time it is... 

Star Control!

What did I know about Star Control before trying it? Absolutely nothing. Well except that it's categorized as an "adventure" game and takes place in space. Which I guess I could've guessed from the title really... I always check a bit of gameplay and screenshots before purchasing a game, sometimes even a metascore if it's a newer game. I got Star Control on and they've bundled it with Star Control 2. Now, after having tried the first game, I realize that it is not entirely clear whether the screens on are from the first or the second game, but I guess they are rather the latter. Graphically they're very similar but I suspect that gameplay-wise they're not.

Just looking at Star Control I wasn't entirely sure if it was my cup of tea. I liked what I was reading about it, if you've read any amount of posts from me before you might've seen me mentioning Escape Velocity, a "space trading and combat simulator" game as wikipedia puts it. I love Escape Velocity and thought Star Control sounded a lot like it. Looking at it however it was verging on the style retro-graphics that I can handle with a bit of overenthusiastic coloration and everything being just too close up or too pixelated to really make out what I am looking at. But as I very rarely let graphics alone get in the way of me trying a game out that otherwise sounds like fun, I decided to give Star Control a spin.

So I started it up and immediately had no idea what I needed to do. With older games the first thing to figure out is always what keys to use, because it's rarely the good old "WASD"-configuration. I say "good old" but back in the day it seems like each game used their own setup of keys and holy macaronies am I happy that is no longer the case. I did manage to get my ship... err wait a sec, ships? Am I playing two ships at once here? I don't get it... well anyway, I did manage to get them both to fly around and shoot stuff, but had no idea what to do beyond that. Was I supposed to kill the other ship? Is Star Control a multiplayer game?! Why had no one told me!

Pew pew! Ok... now what?
That seems to be the case so after aimlessly flying and shooting around for a bit I decided to try out one of the other game options. As I assumed "practice" was the same as "melee" I looked at the last one. Oh wait a minute, no need to worry - "Full Game" is right here, surely this is where the actual game is located. I start that up and... I have even less of a clue of what is going on than before. At least in the melee and practice option I thought I knew what to do, although it seemed rather pointless for me as a single player. But now I am looking at a screen with a lot of dots floating back and forth and I guess one of those ships is supposed to be me? I've got a couple of menu options like "move" and "mine" and "fortify" so that sounds promising at least, that sounds like I've indeed come to the adventure or possibly strategical part of things.

At first I try to actually give things some thought. I try to figure out what could be a good move? Bearing in mind I have literally no clue what the objective is or barely even what I am looking at, my trying to think things through doesn't actually produce much in terms of results. I move my ship around a bit, fortify some things and mine some things. Then I move my ship back. Then up again. More mining and fortifying. Sometimes I get a message about something, but it doesn't seem to make any difference because I keep moving my ship around the dots without anything else happening. Whatever is supposed to happen isn't and I really don't understand what is going on. Unless this is the game? Maybe this is what is supposed to happen and I am winning! But I can't tell.

I sigh... Star Control seems to be one of those retro games that people have a very fond memory of, and I don't doubt that it is a good game. If you can get to it. Star Control is a bit blocked off by distance, and by that I mean distance in time. Being released in 1990, for a computer game especially, Star Control is pretty old and from a time when conventions like explaining the game in-game weren't in place yet. A game like Star Control feels like you pretty much have to read through the manual to get a hang of and probably also be in the mind-set of really old-school computer games, they were just crafted differently back then - for better or worse. For me and in this particular case, the bar was too difficult to get over and I quietly uninstalled it again after about an hour of finnicking around with it.

Star Control left me feeling left-out, too young to understand a game too shaped by its time. Maybe I needed to give it more time, but if one hour of poking around didn't make me one bit smarter I think I am a hopeless cause. Star Control and me didn't click, and in a time when there are so many other games wanting my attention, it's very difficult to sit around for too long with one that gives me a very cold shoulder. It made me no less interested in trying the sequel however, rather the opposite! Star Control 2 also boasts a rather awesome soundtrack so I am definitely looking forward to trying that out.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

VGM Podcasts Review

Video game music has always had a big part in my life, at least since I started gaming. More recently it's pretty much overshadowed every other kind of music and become near the only kind of music I listen to. To be fair, in recent years gaming music has become so diverse that you can get your fill no matter what kind of genre you prefer, but mine happens to still mainly be chiptune-style. As mentioned a couple of posts ago, this also eventually led me into looking for podcasts centred around VGM to keep me company during my bike rides to and from work. And I've actually managed to find quite a few, of varying quality that I thought I would write a little more about. Firstly, it's important to note that what I am after when listening to a VGM podcast is mainly the music. Some podcasts delve a bit deeper into the technical aspects of the making and creating of VGM and while I do find those parts interesting as well, I prefer the ones that just play as many tracks as possible, with a bit of commenting. My evaluation of the podcasts I listen to will of course be biased by my preferences in this regard.

But where is the harp?

Battle Bards by Syp, Steph and Syl
This is probably my favorite or at least one of my favorite VGM podcasts. Eventhough they have niched into MMO-music specifically, which initially had me thinking that I'd get bored with the podcast eventually, they manage to make so much from their topics. The dynamic between the three hosts is by far the best out of the podcasts I listen to - they have completely different tastes and are not afraid to tell eachother. This leads to interesting discussions about the quality of the different tunes and I especially enjoy hearing the different perspectives they often have on the very same tune. This podcast is also unique among the ones I listen to in that it intersperses the music with the talking, rather than listening to a tune (or two) and then talking about it which is the standard procedure, and it really works! Sound levels can be off sometimes, where the music is too loud to hear what they are saying, but that is only occasionally and definitely not enough to remove any of the fun from listening to this gang talking and bickering about MMO VGM. Highly recommended!

Forever Sound Version by Michael
This podcast has only just gotten started and it's off to a very good start. Forever Sound Version is a bit unusual as he does most of the episodes on his own (although he is not the only one as we will see). He does a great job at it however - the focus is on music and the talking only adds to the tunes by keeping it relevant and interesting. Because he (mostly) does the episodes alone, he stays on point which can be very nice when you've listened to a couple of podcasts in a row where the hosts stray off the topics. For the first couple of episodes I've listened to he has managed to strike a nice balance between technical, informative and personal when talking about the tunes and my only gripe is that I feel he sometimes brushes through some topics a bit quick, I wouldn't mind longer episodes!

That's better.

Rhythm N Pixels by Rob and Pernell
Another great podcast with a duo of guys who just want to share some good tunes, making the podcast very laid-back and unpretentious. They choose an often whacky topic that they base their tunes around, which allows for a nice mixture of music. This podcast is more personal and goofy and less technical and I especially enjoy it for the often great variety in music within each episode. It's fun to hear the hosts thoughts around the different topics which can be as diverse as "Fire Levels", "Map Themes" and "All the Fours" and they always find a good balance between the personal anecdotes and music, giving each tune a personal touch without becoming repetative. They also do focus episodes where they listen to music from a specific composer or game series. Again, this podcast is very snack-sized which does go well with it's overall style, but I wouldn't mind them being longer! On the other hand it comes out more often than most other VGM podcasts.

Pixeltunes Radio by Mike and Ed
If you want a VGM podcast with a lot of chatting and topic wandering, this is the podcast for you! I'm not saying that sarcastically, it really comes down to matter of taste. This podcast definitely has a lot of charm, and one of the best thing about it is that there will be a lot of tunes per episode. They also do their own video game inspired skits which I find is a great idea and I am amazed at all the ideas they come up with for these skits. Unfortunately the podcast suffers from a bit of what I'd like to call "bromancing", meaning most of the discussions around the tunes can be wrapped up into "it's a great tune, dude". It's understandable to choose only music you like for your VGM podcast, but if you're a duo of hosts and both like exactly the same kind of music, it doesn't allow for much fun conversation about it and sort of removes the need for being two hosts in the first place. This is also one of the goofier podcasts on my list, and they wander off a bit too much for my taste sometimes. This podcast is also more of a video game podcast that is heavy on the music, because they often get very in-depth describing the game they're covering. They can go into full detail about everything from the first screen, through stage by stage until the end scene. This means it can get a bit far inbetween the songs with information I don't feel I need, but if you like a podcast where you get to know every detail about a game, this is great for you!

Even better!

Pixelated Audio by Bryan and James
This podcast is extremely similar to Pixeltunes Radio and therefor has roughly the same strengths and weaknesses. It does get a bit more technical and it can be quite fun to hear different channels from a certain tune and the hosts explaining what they do and how they affect the song. They also manage to get some really good guests on this show, everything from Chris Huelsbeck to Peter McConnell (the guy who did the OST for Grim Fandango). They often choose rather obscure games to cover, which can be nice if you want to find some new music to listen to and not just something that covers the same old classics (this is also true for Pixeltunes Radio). A bit too much focus on stuff that isn't VGM and with the same issues of bromance, it's an overall good podcast with just a bit much talking. Just as with Pixeltunes Radio this is a "pick the raisins" kind of show for me.

Sound of Play by the Cane & Rinse hosts
Sound of Play is a spin-off of sorts from the Cane & Rinse podcast. Sound of Play has full focus on VGM and although there occassionally are more than one host for the show they often limit their talking to personal experiences with the games and some thoughts about the tunes. Very straightforward and mellow, it is great if you just want to listen to a lot of music with as little talking as possible. I don't know if it is intentional, but Sound of Play definitely play a lot more instrumental and modern VGM tunes than chiptunes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you're after 8-bit tunes you're probably better off listening to one of the other podcasts on the list.

Retro Reprise by Syp
Also a spin-off of sorts, but from Battle Bards, one of the hosts has taken it upon himself to branch out from the MMO-niche and listen to some retro tunes in this podcast. The formula is otherwise similar to Battle Bards in that the music is interspersed with the talking and Syp also does a good job at keeping the talking interesting and relevant to the music, as with the Forever Sound Version podcast. So far Retro Reprise has covered some real classics, and I think it is great. Classics are classics for a reason and great tunes can be heard over and over. There are so many things called Retro Reprise on the internet, so this can best be found under the Battle Bards homepage.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Were Right! Thoughts on the Switch

Almost exactly 8 months ago I wrote a post on some of the rumours surrounding the console now known as the Nintendo Switch. Based on the rumours I was pretty excited - it seemed Nintendo would go back to cartridges and do a crossover console basically turning their handheld and stationary into one. I loved both of these concepts, here we are more than half a year later and it turns out these rumours are pretty much true. As far as I know the cartridges have not been confirmed (although I think you can see it in the reveal trailer), but it seems pretty clear Nintendo are going to go for something like it.

So what can I say? I am not any less intrigued today than I was then, in fact I am thrilled so much of what I hoped for actually turned out to be true (as it seems). I absolutely love the entire idea and I am happy that Nintendo seem to have gone and done another... well Nintendo. Few people think so much out of the box like they do and rarely does it end up being a complete failure.

It looks better than anything I could've imagined (yes, even the dog head) and there are few things about it I don't have high hopes for. There are of course some important issues that need to work like battery Life - the portable screen (and all the other peripherals) needs to have a decent battery life, nothing substantially less than the 3DS is boasting now, if Nintendo wants this to work as part of their handheld line as well. I'm sure they don't need reminding that one thing the comparatively weak Game Boy had over its competitors was battery life (and game library).

I also find it a tad optimistic of them to show people split screening the portable screen. Eventhough it doesn't state the exact size of the screen I am pretty sure it is way too tiny to be split up and still give satisfying game play for everyone involved (especially in a moving car). I did grow up split screening a lot of games on a 16 inch TV and never recall it being an issue, but this screen is most likely smaller and people are just used to bigger screens nowadays. I know people around me who complain when they have split 30 inch TVs in a well lit, non-moving, living room. I love the idea of wirelessly hooking up several of the portable screens for some on the go multiplayer though, and since I know how effortlessly Nintendo have made it work in the more recent Pokémon instalments I have high hopes this will work fine for the Switch.

I have no idea what I am doing

Speaking of Switch, I like the name. Some people (like my bf) who don't like change and have gotten used to the NX moniker seem a bit reluctant to call it anything else. But "the Switch", as it no doubt will be known as, is short and neat and says everything you need to know about it (unlike a name like Playstation 4, which I can only assume it has because Sony are so damn proud of coming up with Playstation in the first place. By the way, I wonder if Gamecube is a play on that? Although, Xbox One is probably worse, at least ps4 is consistent and clear). I find it actually sounds "hip" without trying too hard, unlike NX would've. It also avoids the confusion the WiiU caused, having some people wonder if it was another console at all or just an addon to the Wii. I guess that time Nintendo tried to ride off the wave of fortune the Wii had spawned, but it clearly had the opposite effect.

This time around Nintendo seem to be promising a much bigger third-party support, which really was one of the biggest issues for the WiiU which is otherwise a cool console. None of the games shown in the trailer are anything that will make me throw money on the screen though. I am not a huge Zelda fan (and they cleverly avoid to show any interesting gameplay in the video), I couldn't care less for Skyrim (which hasn't been confirmed as a port or anything else anyway). I don't do sports games and I probably will never play Splatoon (although it seems like a decent game). I suck at any and every Mario game I've played and that only really leaves Mario Kart which ok... I always enjoy to play Mario Kart.

Dude... that things is going to fall on to the floor and break like that.

And that is pretty much it. Nintendo don't have to show me another Smash Bros, Mario Kart or Mario Party because (unlike the Metroid series) I know they will be on there, and they are what I am after.

I love that it is basically a little Swiss Army Knife-console, allowing you to turn it into what you need it to be for the moment. It looks like a lot of things for my 3 year old to accidentally (or deliberately) break, but just as with everything else precious to me it's up to me to make sure that doesn't happen.

I can't say for certain I'm not going to miss my Game Boy though, assuming the Switch means Nintendo are moving away from a pure handheld console. For instance, will I want to bring the portable screen with me on a trip somewhere? How do I charge it then? Do I have to bring the entire console? I dislike any handheld that doesn't have a flip-screen as the possibility of scratching the screen always gets me proper stressed out. Getting some sort of protective gear for the Switch seems like a necessity, but it isn't for my 3DS. To me this looks more like a portable, rather than a handheld, if you get the distinction. Basically I am worried that in trying to fuse these two worlds together, Nintendo are going to end up just getting both of them done half-assed. But, it is Nintendo we are talking about here. If anyone can pull it off, they can.

If the Switch is anywhere near as smooth to use as it seems like in the trailer (which I doubt it is, those people don't even have to turn their TVs on to play - or do they just leave them on all day?) I think it is going to be one hell of a cool console and I am very hyped about it coming out as soon as early next year. I really hope my economy (and the launch line-up) is good enough for me to buy one.